CD Review of In the Late Bright by Tommy Keene
Tommy Keene: In the Late Bright
Recommended if you like
Replacements, Bill Lloyd, Let’s Active
Label
Second Motion
Tommy Keene:
In the Late Bright

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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P
ower pop, as a genre, has almost always been something of a musical cult; success stories like Cheap Trick notwithstanding, most of its practitioners have found it almost impossible to sell records even as they pile up critical accolades. It doesn’t mean much, in other words, to say a power pop artist has recorded a ton of highly regarded albums that should have been huge hits – but even in the commercially barren context of the genre, Tommy Keene’s star-crossed career is legendary. Over the course of nearly three decades, and a catalog whose virtues have been sung by a small but fervent pack of critics and fans, Keene has come within a fingertip of the brass ring a number of times, only to see it slip by.

As with any commercially malnourished artist, the reasons for Keene’s undeservedly low profile are many: he’s endured label squabbles (and label bankruptcies), released songs he shouldn’t have (and shelved those he should have released), and suffered from generally unfortunate timing at pretty much every turn. Many lesser artists have folded in the face of such persistent adversity, but rather than folding, Keene has continued to go all in with his meager stack of chips, managing to release new albums on a fairly regular basis whether anyone else was interested (or solvent) enough to do the job for him.

Tommy Keene

Keene’s tour through the indie-label wilderness started with 1996’s stellar Ten Years After, and although the intervening years have seen him record some of the best music of his career, they’ve also produced some of his most uneven; albums like 1998’s Isolation Party and 2002’s The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down sagged under the strain of guerrilla recording techniques and occasionally spotty material. He didn’t make many major missteps, but he did seem to be struggling to get back to the heart of his earlier material – not to mention its punchy hooks and bright, chiming guitars.

So here’s the good news, Tommy Keene fans: his eighth album, In the Late Bright, is his freshest and most consistently entertaining piece of work since Ten Years After.

Though he’s a terrific guitarist and gifted songwriter, Keene isn’t the most expressive vocalist, and he’s always had to rely more than most on instrumental and compositional skill. When he’s on, this translates to some of the smartest and most satisfying music any pop fan could ask for – and when he isn’t, the results can be pretty dull. Happily, he’s managed to assemble an admirably solid set of songs for In the Late Bright, and he gets them across with all the piss and vinegar of a performer with half his age (or embittering experience). Rather than indulging his weakness for multi-tracked mid-tempo drones, Keene keeps things short and sweet here – nothing breaks the five-minute mark – and keeps the instantly memorable melodies coming fast and furious.

Keene co-produced the album with R. Walt Vincent, and both acquit themselves admirably – Late Bright is polished and, well, bright, but it’s got more dynamic range than any of Keene’s more recent work. The drums are dry and tight, the guitars are front and center, and Keene’s vocals are piled snugly on top of one another – everything the Keene faithful expect. It would be nice if these songs were able to find enough of a commercial foothold to expand the ranks of those faithful, but that’s probably out of the question – and, fortunately, clearly beside the point for Keene.

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