What goes round in a story, what comes down with the glory, can be found in the real underground
The Real Underground (1993) ****1/2
This impossible to find 23-track compilation contains the entirety of his 1984 EP Places That Are Gone that provide the first six tracks, two tracks from the 4-song Back Again (Try...) EP from the same year (a pair of Stones and Roxy covers are omitted), and the rest consists of unreleased material from 1982 to 1992. Given the ragtag nature of the source material, you'd expect a hit or miss collection of miscellany, not a consistently entertaining set of songs that taken together as a whole constitute Keene's best-ever collection of tunes. At his best, which is in high frequency here, Keene's soaringly melodic, jangly pop-rock rivals the best of Big Star, which by osmosis rivals the best of vintage Byrds if not mid-'60s era Beatles. The first nine songs are all stunningly brilliant slices of pop-rock perfection, all of them, and I dithered a bit in giving this album a five-star rating if only the remaining 14 tracks didn't waver a bit in quality. Even so, he's consistent enough that "That You Do," and "Mr. Roland," are the only tracks I find myself regularly skipping over (the synthesizer instrumental, "People With Fast Cars Drive Fast," is too short at 56 seconds for me to bother skipping.) There are three well-chosen and excellently performed covers that testify to Keene's good taste and knowledge of classic rock'n'roll: "Hey! Little Child," (Alex Chilton); "Tattoo," (the Who); and "Shake Some Action," (the Flamin' Groovies). The rest display an ennervating grasp of melodic pop-rock writing skills that rivals any pop-rock melodic genius you'd care to namedrop, whether that be Roy Wood or Marshall Crenshaw - in other words, this is literally as good as melodic pop-rock gets.
Needless to say, with such a huge cavalcade of top-notch songs, such a veritable feast of richly tuneful hooksmanship, picking favorites is like trying to decide which chocolate in the 23-piece box to savor first. But there are clear highlights; some of these songs are merely ordinary ("Andrea," "Hey Man,") and some sound like the most brilliant song ever when you're actively listening, but sink away from memory after the record's over ("Nothing Happened Yesterday," "When the Truth is Found,"). The lead-off track, "Places That Are Gone," may be Keene's most well-known song, but it's the title track that sums up for me Keene's genius for what I'd like to term 'hyperactive melancholy,' the feeling of soaring uplift and crushing sadness at the same instance that makes for the most emotionally affecting pop. "The Real Underground," amazingly enough, seems to have been one of those unreleased numbers that only first turned up on this compilation, despite being in my not so humble opinion Keene's towering masterpiece of song. Almost as effective is "Baby Face," a slightly haunting evocation of unappreciated beauty that constituted Keene's first-ever great ballad and still remains one of his best. The admonitory "Back To Zero," comes on as an edited version of Dylan in the blistering "Positively 4th Street," tradition, and "Back Again," possesses a pitch-perfectly harmonized chorus hook that in all justice should have rung out from every radio in Christendom. If you're at all interested in the guy, this is the place to start, if only it weren't long, long out of print and very difficult to obtain a copy even given modern-day downloading options.
Very few YouTubes available, but here's one, and hey, as of this date, it's gained a massive 2,829 views! The boy might crack the charts with those promising numbers if he keeps at it. Persistence, m'boy, persistence.