CD Review of Crashing the Ether by Tommy Keene

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Crashing the Ether
starstarstarno starno star Label: Eleven Thirty Records
Released: 2006
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Hey kids, remember he tail end of the ‘80s into the early ‘90s? You know, when “alternative” rock exploded and took over everything and it was pretty cool to tune into terrestrial radio once again and watch MTV? Well, there was one such a time, believe it or not, and there really was quite a bit of exciting music coming out on all the labels. Stuff that would once again not get played on the radio these days because it just isn’t good business practice to give the folks some variety. Anyway, there was this thing called “power pop” that was getting played again. Now, this genre has been around for a long, long time. But for sake of the story we’ll hold up Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend album as a milestone of that particular early ‘90s time.

Sweet’s album, and countless others like it, fall in a particular line of jangly, Beatles-infused, harmony-laden sweetness that also include the likes of one Tommy Keene. Keene’s been on the scene since the early ‘80s and has released a number of items that have been critically acclaimed and lambasted, sometimes simultaneously. This is how it often goes for power pop artists. Some folks will champion nearly anything these types will churn out, while others are happier with one particular sound an artist did, and then say “Oh everything after [insert album here] sucked.” They’re a strange crowd, power pop fans. In the end they might as well just stroke off to the Beatles’ albums and call it a day, as far as evolving their tastes go.

So anyway, Keene’s been around and in and out of the musical mills as front man and as touring artiste with the Replacements and later in Paul Westerberg’s own band. Now, say what you will about that. Westerberg has never had the greatest of luck, what with some of the Replacements’ and his own albums garnering rave reviews, but no commercial success whatsoever. But time rolls along, and Keene keeps working, and that pretty much brings us to the here and now, which finds him dropping off Crashing the Ether into our CD players.

It’s almost ironic, and really, it probably actually is, but the sounds Keene might have helped make cool years ago now sound like a facsimile of those very things. You listen to this album and you know you’ve heard it before, and heard it better, too. Not only by Keene himself, but any of those that fell in down that distinctive jangly line, be it Matthew Sweet, or countless indie rock bands that still can’t get over their Nuggets fascination. Sure enough, the two opening songs here, “Black & White New York” and “Warren in the ‘60s” sound so overly “familiar” that they’re rendered dull. Nice sounding, mind you, but dull nonetheless.

And then there’s that good old Big Star sound to lean against. “Driving down the Road in My Mind” takes the lethargy of Sister Lovers’ “Big Black Car” and props it up with the pace of Radio City’s “September Gurls.” If ever there was a band that doesn’t need to be mimicked anymore in the power pop vein, it’s Big Star. But maybe that also comes down to Keene’s voice, which recalls Alex Chilton’s during those ‘70s days, anyway. Indeed, “Wishing” sounds like a song Chilton would be great at writing if he wasn’t so interested in being a louse and dicking around constantly.

But it’s not all borrowed songs here. “Lives Become Lies” has a nice synth buzz in it, breaking the album free of its golden age retro restraints. And as far as the photocopies go, “I’ve Heard the Wind Blow Before” shows off Keene’s talents for channeling Revolver-era Lennon psychedelia. In fact, the whole album is played perfectly and sounds nice and glossy and hip and it’s quite pleasing to probably most anyone’s ear. And for those points, it cannot be faulted. It can, however, be docked for just being so mediocre in its retro attitude.

But then again, some musicians just like writing songs that sound like this sort of thing. Sometimes you just sound like who you are no matter what you do, and if this is what comes out, then so be it. Therefore, it’s best to just leave it as an even split. Some people are really going to dig the hell out of this disc, while others might be generally engaged by it, but will yield no long-term thrills from the songs included within. But then that’s another thing about power pop and its champions. They’re often in it for the long run, bless ‘em. It’s just that so often an album could be so much better for all the praise given to it. So it is with Crashing the Ether

~Jason Thompson