In the Late Bright (2009) ***1/2
One good thing about Tommy Keene's style of music is that you know almost instantly, once the needle hits the groove/laser hits the disc/bytes upload to the speakers, is whether it's good or not. And I recognized upon first listen that this was Keene's finest achievement in literally over 20 years - yes, it's now around a quarter century as I write this in 2011, since 1986's signature Songs From the Film. At this late date, Keene's non-likely to convert the uncoverted, but for fans, this is a more than welcome return to form after his decade-long drought. It would be a mistake to expect any innovations or surprises from a man now past 50 and deep within the third decade of his musical career, and truth be told, Keene doesn't do anything here that he hasn't done better in the past; it's just that, like I said, 'better' means all the way back to the mid-'80s, and Keene hasn't sounded this fresh and invigorated in years. He's rocking harder than ever, but he's finally found a way production-wise to not do so unpleasantly - the rock crunches and punches smoothly and punchily, not metallically and gratingly (see "Please Don't Come Around"). As trending with late-period Keene, he's emphasizing his guitar chops nearly as much as his pop-hooky songwriting, and while the instrumental "Elevated," demonstrates that he can shred and tear noisily for a Jeff Beck acolyte at mid-century, it's admittedly the song stuck in the middle of the album that I always hit the skip button for: there's really no need for it to exist except as a showcase. The album opens with the 2:15 rush of the snappy and feelingly fragmentary title track, which shows that Keene has obviously been listening to pal Robert Pollard's GBV records, and while the second track, "A Secret Life of Stories," painfully emphasizes one of Keene's achilles heels - his clumsy rhyming schemes (there's no excuse for using the word "Hortense" in a pop song, ever - c'mon, "mints"? "evidence"? "wince"? Anything would be better) - it's one of the album's highlights despite its lyrical shortcomings. I'll conclude by noting that "The Right Time to Fly," is perfectly perfect perfection of jangly-surging power-pop, and after that there's no longer much point in track by track poring over every one of these 11 tracks: if you know Keene, you know what to expect. The minor variations of sound and quality of his post-'80s albums all come down to exactly how well he performs his patented'n'predictable formula each time out. Well, good news - he's back at the top of his game. Honestly, this is a 3.75 and thereby might inch to a low four star rating, but he's not offering anything we haven't heard before here. All Tommy Keene albums are equal, but some are more equal than others.