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Tommy Keene, School of Seven Bells, Dweezil Zappa, Innocence Mission and a Danger Mouse/Sparklehorse collaboration

By Brian Baker · August 1st, 2010 · I Shall Be Released

I’m beginning to understand my wife’s frustration when she feels as though I’m not really paying attention to her when she talks to me about whatever the hell it is she talks to me about. I've been shouting to an empty sky about Tommy Keene for literally the last 30 years (as have a goodly number of my critical brethren).

If great press translated to negotiable currency, Keene would have Bill Gates for a personal assistant and pay him weekly out of petty cash. He’s been called a potential star so many times, NASA has photographed him with the Hubble telescope. And his melodically crunchy Guitar Rock is so brilliantly unclassifiable that radio has largely ignored his now modestly sized catalog after initially climbing aboard for his near-breakthrough, 1984’s astonishing EP, Places That Are Gone.

From his days with Washington D.C.’s shoulda-been-huge Razz to his undeniably great but coltishly-followed solo career to his fantastic but largely obscure cameo guitar appearances (Velvet Crush, Paul Westerberg, The Gin Blossoms, Robert Pollard/Keene Brothers/Boston Spaceships), Keene has managed to maintain a moderately successful career and a reputation as one of the music industry’s most lauded and inexplicable fringe artists. Geffen Records should be forced to make him the head of the label and pay him $20 million a year for mismanaging his career to a virtual standstill in the late ’80s, but that is an oft-told tale and this space is about the music, which is found in glorious abundance on Tommy Keene You Hear Me: A Retrospective 1983-2009 (the title being an allusional pun on the seminal Rock opera by The Who, one of Keene’s biggest avowed influences).

The two-disc Hear Me is a chronological core sample of much of Keene’s recorded history and potent evidence of his songwriting strength and consistency over his nearly 30-year solo career, not to mention differing production styles and technology. The first disc is clearly the strongest, as it shows Keene in his muscular early years, primarily consisting of perfect selections from his near brilliant triptych of blazing Power Pop from the early-to-late-’80s (Places That Are Gone, Songs From the Film and Based on Happy Times) including the shimmery “Back Again,” the astonishing “My Mother Looked Like Marilyn Monroe” and the darkly thrilling “Highwire Days.”

The second disc is from Keene’s less respected latter period, where a fair number of jaded critics dismissed his work for a variety of misguided reasons (but, to quote a Keene lyric, “Paper words and lies aren’t gonna change my life”). His releases in the ’90s and the new millennium are admittedly not quite as immediate as his ’80s output, but are evolutionarily more considered and mature and every bit as satisfying when given an appropriate amount of listening time and attention. Disc two of Hear Me offers a nice selection from this era as well, from his fabulous Matador releases (Isolation Party and Ten Years After) and his subsequent work for a variety of small labels, particularly his last two positively rejuvenated albums, Crashing the Ether (for Eleven Thirty) and the exquisite In the Late Bright (for Second Motion, also home to Hear Me).

For the slavish Keene fan, Hear Me holds at least a few jewels that make it a worthwhile acquisition: the re-appearance of Keene’s debut single, “Back to Zero Now” and its mind-bending, psychedelicized B-side, “Mr. Roland” (originally available on CD on the long out-of-print The Real Underground collection), a scorching live take on Isolation Party’s “Long Time Missing,” an acoustic version of “Black and White New York” from Ether and a fantastic unreleased cover of the 20/20 Power Pop classic, “Leaving Your World Behind.”

Beyond that, Hear Me is great simply for the novelty of having all these tremendous songs in a single collection. Tommy Keene has obviously been frustrated over the years in his attempt to find a bigger audience for his passionate Pop/Rock work — he threatened to retire from music as a solo artist if Ten Years After didn’t break him big, but thankfully he didn’t follow through — but the incredible accomplishment of his most recent work is evidence that he’s likely resigned himself to his cult status and is concentrating on making music that satisfies his personal requirements and elates his small but fiercely loyal fan base. And that, friends of Tommy Keene, will have to be enough.

Everything about School of Seven Bells, named for a mythic South American pickpocket academy, is just slightly left of musical center. Former Tripping Daisy drummer/Secret Machines guitarist Ben Curtis and former On! Air! Library! identical twins Alejandra and Claudia Deheza formed SVIIB three years ago as a side project, with the main conceptual thrust being to concentrate on the lyrics first and the music second.

But almost immediately the members decided to make it their primary gig. The trio’s first album, 2008’s Alpinisms, was a briskly paced triumph of Electro Dream Pop, an ethereal wash of sound punctuated by occasional guitars and discernible song structures that attracted great press and a fairly rabid fan base.

SVIIB applies the same general template to its sophomore album, Disconnect From Desire, while tweaking everything up a notch or two. There were moments on Alpinisms where the Deheza sisters’ powerfully seductive voices were mixed into the proceedings like an additional instrument, but on Disconnect From Desire they are more distinct from their accompaniment and less like a textural element.

But just as on Alpinisms, School of Seven Bells rises above the mechanical pulse of their Electronic beats on Desire by brilliantly balancing the Indie Dream Pop tendencies of the Dehezas with Curtis’ proclivity for Indie/Prog Rock. The resulting blend transcends mere Synth Pop by swelling with a passionate tribal quality, folding in the ephemeral Folk/Pop beauty of Jane Siberry, the exquisitely layered complexity of the Cocteau Twins and the dramatic Electonic Pop orchestration of Eurythmics. Disconnect From Desire finds SVIIB seamlessly translating its influences into its own unique methodology and singular sonic expressionism.

Five years ago, Dweezil Zappa, eldest son of Frank Zappa, envisioned a series of concerts designed to expose the almost supernaturally challenging compositions of his late father. The hook in this project would be that Dweezil’s presentation of Frank’s music would be note-perfect recreations, a daunting clause that essentially required Dweezil to relearn his fingering and picking techniques to more accurately convey Frank’s sinewy precision and lightning-fast execution.

Populating his touring bands with a variety of highly skilled musicians well versed in playing Frank’s music, including a handful of rotating guests who actually played under Frank back in the day, Dweezil hit the road as Zappa Plays Zappa and found himself performing brilliantly faithful renditions of Frank’s music to ecstatic older fans who wanted to relive his magic and a new generation of young fans who wanted to experience Frank’s genius for the first time.

Each iteration of ZPZ was more rehearsed and able to dig deeper into Frank’s impossibly complex catalog, and each successive tour brought more acclaim to Dweezil and his cast of Frankophiles, including a 2008 Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.

For his latest album, Return of the Son of..., Dweezil has opted to set aside the ZPZ moniker and release the two-CD set under his own name. That decision may well be explained in the brief liner notes that accompany the album, specifically where Dweezil explains that the lengthy guitar solos he plays on some of these songs are combinations of his father’s work and his own improvisational inspirations, all of it filtered through Dweezil’s interpretations of Frank’s distinctive and quirky technique.

And while the Zappa Plays Zappa banner would still hold true in that instance, Dweezil might well have thought that he inserted enough of his own musical personality into the exquisitely conceived solos in the 20-minute opus “King Kong,” the serious novelty of “Montana,” the jazzy “Inca Roads” and the epic “Billy the Mountain” to warrant releasing it under his name alone.

For what it’s worth, these superb performances, culled from ZPZ shows over the past two years (particularly a three night stand in Chicago two years ago), do tend to exude a little more of Dweezil’s inner light. Perhaps Return of the Son heralds the eventual and welcome return of Dweezil Zappa as an original artist in his own right. As much as we’ve all enjoyed his loving recreations of Frank’s monumental catalog, it would be great to hear his newly rewired playing style applied to his own compositions, which have generally been pretty spiffy themselves.

Rare is the band that can have their work critiqued positively in The Onion, Christianity Today and Pitchfork. Innocence Mission is that rarity.

The Lancaster, Penn., outfit got started after a high school production of Godspell, ultimately signing with A&M and releasing its eponymous debut in 1989. That first IM album was a marvel of muscular restraint, with the powerful yet understated guitar of Don Peris, the subtle undercurrent of the rhythm section of bassist Mike Bitts and drummer Steve Brown, and the tremulously ethereal vocals and the exquisite fragile stability of the songcraft of Peris’ wife Karen, compared in more than a few quarters to Natalie Merchant and Joni Mitchell. IM’s three A&M albums were largely electric and forcefully atmospheric, but after Brown’s departure to become a chef, the band shifted to a more acoustic and basically drumless direction, a sonic posture that they’ve maintained over the subsequent 11 years.

If the opening strains of the eighth and latest Innocence Mission album, My Room in the Trees, seem like an eerie return to the gentler aspects of the band’s earliest output, it is to a certain extent. Trees’ lead track, “Rain (Setting Out in the Leaf Boat),” features the long absent drums of Steve Brown and his presence provides a discernible aura to the song, an insistent pulse that has been too infrequent in the band’s recent repertoire. Don Peris occasionally provides a percussive beat, but there is an undeniably sophisticated elegance to Brown’s syncopation, and it’s the difference between a heartbeat and a soul.

None of this spit-balling should be considered a condemnation of My Room in the Trees, which is, like the overwhelming majority of the Innocence Mission’s canon, heart-wrenchingly beautiful and spiritually affirming. “The Leaves Lift High” swirls with the sweet melancholy that Nick Drake perfected, “The Happy Mondays” sounds like Karen Peris singing an unearthed Beatles demo and “All the Weather” is IM’s stripped down Folk version of ’60s jazzy Tropicalia.

The Peris’ and their sinewy bassist Mike Bitts have made (and will continue to make) some of the most affecting and gorgeous Folk music of the last couple of decades. The fact remains that “Rain (Setting Out in the Leaf Boat)” leaves us with a sweet hint of a future where Steve Brown stopped cooking long enough to come back to the Innocence Mission and start cooking again.

There aren’t many albums that can be described as both contentious and tragic, but the Danger Mouse/Sparklehorse collaboration Dark Night of the Soul certainly fits that slim category. The album’s tortuous path began when Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) and Sparklehorse’s main power source Mark Linkous conceived a fascinating project where they would create instrumental music and send the results to director David Lynch. Lynch would take a series of photographs inspired by each song, which in turn would inspire Burton and Linkous to craft lyrics for the music.

Burton and Linkous then planned to send the songs to various vocalists for their specific input, with the intent of releasing the music as a CD and the photographs in an accompanying book, but a legal dispute between Burton and EMI delayed the release to the extent that the Lynch book was printed and distributed with a blank CD-R to burn a copy of the album (which Burton leaked online). That’s the contentious part. The tragedy is that Linkous and singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt, one of Dark Night of the Soul’s guest voices, both committed suicide before Burton and EMI could resolve their differences to clear the way for the album’s official release.

With the much-discussed album finally out, the situation becomes all the more unsettling because of its quirky magnificence, from the Beatlesque “Revenge,” featuring The Flaming Lips’ patented weirdness, and the swaggering Punktronic Pop of “Angel’s Harp” with Black Francis’ unhinged contribution, to the careening Modern Rock of Iggy Pop’s “Pain” and the presciently black-shrouded carnival of Vic Chesnutt’s “Grim Augury.”

Burton and Linkous’ diverse soundtrack has all of the delicious left turns of a Tom Waits/Brian Eno/Radiohead studio jam, adding further ennui to the proceedings as Linkous’ death negates the potential to explore a second volume. Dark Night of the Soul is a fitting tribute to its fallen participants and conceptually successful enough to hopefully inspire Burton to revisit the concept with a new musical collaborator, a fresh slate of vocal contributors and perhaps even more wildly arranged and executed sonic vignettes.



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