Saturday, January 29, 2011
Tommy Keene - Strange Alliance
Strange Alliance (1982) ***
Tommy Keene's debut mini-LP (only eight songs, with a running time of around 33 minutes) is both fully formed and formative. He introduces a sharply chiming power-pop formula from which he would rarely deviate from for the rest of his still-ongoing career: the mix focusing on his reedy, paper-cut sharp tenor vocals, with chimingly harmonized, sometimes even more sharply slicing guitars filling in the musical color in the Byrds/Big Star tradition. The cuttingly jagged contours of the presentation, and the slight-but-omnipresent melancholy that suffuse Keene's dour outlook, contrasts effectively with his winsomely melodic, straightforward popcraft - his shiny power-pop tunes have an attractively mildly abrasive edge, making him much more emotionally listenable than your run of the mill cheery-bouncy power-popster. Worshipping the high priest Alex Chilton (Keene claims that the Raspberries are his biggest influence, but Eric Carmen's influence isn't here nor ever in his entire career, remotely audible), a mild early U2 influence also shines through on this release with its overabuse of ringingly harmonized guitar effects. The jagged little PIL guitar sound is unique to this particular record in Keene's ouvre, and would be quickly dropped in favor of a more Rickenbacker-y jangle on subsequent releases.
Keene's sound, in other words, is still a bit tentative, and as for the songs, they are as well. This is a not-bad-at-all record containing seven well-crafted, catchily melodic pop-rock tunes that only really suffers in comparison to his later, superior work. The closer, "Northern Lights," the sole bummer, is a slow, chilly drag that shows that Keene hadn't quite developed the knack for writing ballads yet. The energetic "Landscape," bursts from the opening gate with sharp rhythmic drive and along with the anthemic thud of the title track, is easily one of the album's highlights. The other five tunes aren't quite up to that standard but offer enough reasonably memorable hooks and choruses to stick in your head after a couple of listens; the only major problem being that the band sound less tight and more draggy than they need to be. This debut may be one of the low points of Keene's career, but Keene is one of those musicians who's so solidly consistent that even his slightly premature debut is still solidly enjoyable and should by no means be avoided by those who dig his modernized Big Star formula. This album, which has never been reissued on CD (original vinyl versions fetch up to $100 on Ebay, apparantly) is a collector's item if you ever see a vinyl copy in the bins. But if you don't, here's a link to an MP3 blog where you can download it: