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Music Review: Tommy Keene – Tommy Keene You Hear Me: A Retrospective 1983-2009

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Has it really been 25 years since Tommy Keene’s major label debut, Songs From The Film? Along with The Replacements and Husker Dü, Keene seemed poised to bring a new type of power pop into the mainstream.

Of the three, he actually seemed to have the upper hand. Whereas Husker and the ‘Mats music came from a harder-edged punk perspective, Tommy Keene has never been shy about claiming The Raspberries as his major inspiration. The heavy duty promotional push from Geffen Records counted for a lot also.

So what happened? For one thing, Geffen dropped him like a hot potato shortly after his second album, Based On Happy Times (1989). But my guess is that the real reason is that his type of music has just never been very popular with the masses. Sure, The Raspberries had a big hit with “Go All The Way,” but it took them four albums to get there. Legends like Big Star never even got that far.

Keene’s power pop may inspire rhapsodies from critics and a fanatical cult audience, but for the most part the general public couldn’t care less. And that is a shame, because this is music that would appeal to a broad spectrum of listeners, if only anyone ever heard it.

Second Motion Records has assembled a stellar two-disc collection of Keene’s best, titled Tommy Keene You Hear Me: A Retrospective 1983-2009. It features some unreleased, some alternate, and some live tracks among the 41 songs included. But the bulk of it comes from his studio recordings over the years.

Fans of his two Geffen albums will appreciate disc one. Fifteen of its twenty-one tracks come from them, while the remaining six are previously unreleased cuts from those same sessions. Disc two is much more of a mixed bag. Tommy has bounced around a bit over the past 20 years or so, recording for labels such as Matador, Alias, and Eleven Thirty.

I have to admit that I pretty much lost sight of his career after the initial push, so listening to this disc has been a real revelation for me. Flashes of the old jingle-jangle guitars still appear, but a lot of these songs reflect a real stylistic move forward for him. Tempos occasionally slow down, and a couple of ballads even appear. I laughed out loud when I first heard the big metal guitars of “Turning On Blue” from Ten Years After (1996). Thankfully, this satirical tune was written with just that response in mind.

As one delves further into the chronologically arranged set, we find Tommy’s songwriting style maturing, and his voice becoming ever deeper. In the end, Retrospective shows an incredibly graceful career arc, from the beginning right up to three songs from In The Late Bright (2009).

There is little point in addressing Tommy’s fans, except to say that this is a well thought-out collection. After all, they have already drank the Kool-Aid. But for those who may like what power pop they have heard, but are just not sure about Tommy Keene, believe me — he is the real deal, and well worth checking out.

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About Greg Barbrick