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.