Sunday, November 28, 2010

Tommy Keene--The Real Underground--My 80's Inner Soundtrack

Washington D.C.'s Tommy Keene first came into my crosshairs due to a positive review in the Village Voice by the critic Robert Christgau.
It was an ep on Dolphin records called Places That Are Gone. I made a nice investment the day I bought that slab of vinyl. I wore that album out listening to those 6 great songs. And it just dawned on me that my introduction to Alex Chilton began here (not counting The Letter), with Keene's cover of Hey!! Little Child. I only knew at the time it was a cover of someone else's song that I liked. Anyway, I was just blown away with the eps stripped down acoustic pop perfection.

The idea of a personal soundtrack was first revealed to me during a viewing of The Graduate, when Dustin Hoffman played his role to a backdrop of Simon and Garfunkel. It seemed to be a pretty appealing idea for a pre-teen, and I incorporated this concept into my life, first with Simon and Garfunkel and then I branched out and improvised with The Beatles, The Who, AC-DC, The Jam, and so on...Tommy Keene became a part of this after my college graduation. Unfortunately the use of the soundtrack has now been used in cinema and Tv ad nauseum. Sometimes it works, but often it is used as filler in the same way a student might try to pad the length of a term paper.

One of the requisites of being in ones soundtrack is being sympathetic. Romance, youth, rebellion. Some people identify with a Springsteen, a Joni Mitchell, Elliott Smith. A lot of it has to do with timing I suppose.
Feelings Never Quite Complete
Also how you view yourself, at least in a romanticized way. The reality of it is that it is probably clutter in my head that I could do better without. Now songs stick in my head and I can't get rid of them, like a pleasant form of tinnitus, if that is even possible. Tommy Keene comes off like a young aspiring guy, not like a Robert Plant or some other otherworldly star. Somebody a lot like me at that time.

The Real Underground is a compilation cd put out by Alias Records, and it is a handy place to hear Tommy's early recordings. Included are unreleased songs from the time period of Places That Are Gone. The eponymous song is one of Tommy's best known songs and it is a breathtaking pop masterpiece. "Just looking back before they take it all away, I'm almost glad that we never wanted to stay". That song is followed with Nothing Happened Yesterday, another melodic gem. Babyface is a poignant ballad about a fantastic woman whose qualities are unappreciated by the world around her.

Probably the best song on the ep is Back To Zero, the first song on the B side. Great lyrics, and timely hand claps. "Stayed away, far from the maddening crowd, you try to listen, they were talking way too loud". When The Truth Is Found is also excellent, passionate delivery of a terrific melody. The ep closes with the aforementioned Hey! Little Child, a fine take on Alex Chilton. Definitely an A+ recording.

But alongside these gems are 17 more great cuts. Other notable tracks are Back Again...Try, Safe In The Light, Something Got A Hold Of Me, Sleeping On A Rollercoaster, Something To Rave About, and Love Is The Only Thing That Matters. Dull Afternoon and Don't Sleep In The Daytime are also winners. There obviously isn't a lot of fluff on this anthology. There are also two other choice covers, The Flaming Groovies Shake Some Action and The Who's Tattoo. Recently a two Cd anthology covering Keene's career (Can You Hear Me) through 2009 was released. I'm sure it is excellent, but as I haven't heard it I couldn't say with any authority. Maybe this release will help get him his due now. A great tunesmith and lyricist of Keene's calibre belongs in any self respecting music library.

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