Sharps and Flats: Tommy Keene

Published February 26, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Everyone knows someone whose taste in music has frozen in time: crazy aunts who listen exclusively to Elvis, bubba-like brothers who love Blue Oyster Cult. Critics tend to have contempt for such stick-in-the-mudness, but the truth is, all of us have a sound that sends us, spiritually speaking. For me, it's the kind of jangle-pop typified by R.E.M.'s first five LPs, as well as that of their peers like the Dbs, the Feelies and Tommy Keene.

Of those acts, Keene has been simultaneously the most commercially promising -- and the most invisible. Something about his music melts into thin air, despite the fact that songs like "Paper Words and Lies" and "Run Now" are at least as direct and as melodic as those of Squeeze, Ben Vaughan or Marshall Crenshaw. Keene's personality isn't exactly imposing, however: Upon winning the Pazz and Jop poll for his 1984 EP "Places That Are Gone," he signed to Geffen, released two LPs, and all but disappeared from view.

In the '90s, Keene's profile hasn't just been low, it's been nonexistent -- but all of a sudden, he has reappeared with an LP on the hip-groovy Matador label. "Isolation Party" sounds identical to his pretty and poignant mid-'80s work. It's jangle pop, pure and simple, achy-lyric songs about outgrowing your girlfriend and getting dumped, surrounded by strummy backgrounds that are jammed with well-placed minor sevenths and open chord tunings that'll make you murmur with delight.

Atmospherically, the record is a bit of a downer, a sick rumination on the past that verges, at times, on the bitterness of unsuccess. On "Love Dies Down," for example, Keene keans, "We didn't get very far in the endless stream of condemnation." "Battle Lines" is a five-minute song about the folly of being an indie pop monster in 1982. And if you hadn't gotten the drift of things already from the remarkably Paul Westerberg-esque song "Happy When You're Sad," there's a Mission of Burma cover ("Einstein's Day," rendered as if MOB had been a pretty-pop, rather than an atonal big guitar band) that indicates exactly what era Keene is stuck in.

Musically, Keene's songs go down real easy. Where they fail is lyrically, since his turn of phrase is strangely unmemorable. For the most part, "Isolation Party" is relentlessly mid-tempo, relatively beatless and definitely unedifying, full of the type of music that has never gone over big on the radio (except, for some reason, when purveyed by Hootie and the Blowfish). And the truth is that 1998 is no more or less propitious toward the stuff than any other era has been.

But you know what? If this is the stuff that gets you where you live, then that's all there is to it. You must buy this album now and indulge it as if was a big ol' box of bad-for-you chocolate; as if you'd never heard the Beastie Boys, DJ Shadow or Beck. The man must be my personal Blue Oyster Cult -- able, with a quick flick of a Rickenbacker, to set my spirit humming.

By Gina Arnold

Gina Arnold is a columnist at the East Bay Express in Berkeley, Calif., and the author of the book "Kiss This: Punk in the Present Tense" (St. Martin's Press).

MORE FROM Gina Arnold

Related Topics ------------------------------------------