The release of Tommy Keene's major label debut, "Songs From the Film" (Geffen GHS24090), has been eagerly awaited, especially in the Washington area. With three independent EPs already to his credit, Keene has not only received substantial college radio play, but he is the only local rock act since Nils Lofgren and Grin to garner consistent national critical acclaim. Given Washington's desire for a rock star to call its own and Keene's considerable potential, Keene has landed in the precarious position of being the area's rock star in waiting.
While "Songs From the Film" reasserts the pleasing pop craft displayed on those earlier EPs, it is not the impressive leap forward in sound or creative expression some fans may have hoped for. The 11 originals and one cover here offer more of Keene's characteristically dolorous guitar-based pop. At its best, it is a style that sustains a delicious tension between the buoyant Beatles sounds of the '60s and a more distraught and interior modern sensibility.
It's not surprising that the album kicks off with a new version of Keene's college radio hit, "Places That Are Gone." It is still his most memorable composition. It is also one of his most creatively realized because the guitar parts -- ringing with optimism on the uplifting chorus and cutting with dagger-like precision on the worrisome refrain -- are as full of emotional suggestion as the lyrics.
Only two other songs here, "Listen to Me" and "As Life Goes By," possess the same melodic verve as "Places That Are Gone." Both of these match colorful guitar lines to tight harmonies and really do recall the mid-period Beatles in the simple appeal of their yearning choruses and bittersweet reflectiveness. Unfortunately, a number of other originals, such as "Call on Me" and "Paper Words and Lies," begin with promising guitar flourishes before being grounded by plodding rhythms and ordinary arrangements.
Part of the attraction of Keene's music lies in his impressionistic lyricism that conjures a suburban malaise where relationships remain unfulfilled, sources of discontent are inexplicable and the past and future seem unfocused. When this album fails it is because the band, along with producer Geoff Emerick , does't create a sound as interesting or as rich in shadings as the songs demand.
Even though there are dreamy songs here like "Underworld" that beg for a little aural extravagance, Emerick's production does little more than grant the band a fatter drum and guitar sound than the earlier EPs. The band itself -- two guitars, bass and drums -- often tends to slug out the songs with straightforward beats in rugged arrangements more appropriate to a hard-rock band.
The few songs that do shake themselves out of the mold are some of the most satisfying. The surging rhythm guitar and ominous drum pattern of "Gold Town" create an unexpected aura of terror and urgency. Keene himself breaks free in Lou Reed's primal rocker "Kill Your Sons" as he adopts a snarling, aggressive tone and tags on a fierce psychedelic guitar coda. Two more ambitious pieces, "Underworld" and "The Story Ends," at least sustain a more wistful atmosphere thanks to their piano and acoustic-guitar-based arrangements.
There's no doubt that even when the songs on this album don't connect or the band simply can't bring them to life, Keene remains an easy artist to listen to and like. His lyrics, delivered in a guileless, adenoidal vocal style, are never less than personal and honest. His sound, with its resplendent '60s guitar motifs and its youthful air of distressed romanticism, should continue to attract rock fans also drawn to America's other pop revisionists like the Bongoes, the dB's and Lets Active.
Keene, however, has also been generously compared to even more illustrious album makers like R.E.M., Marshall Crenshaw and T-Bone Burnett. "Songs From the Film" falls short of these artists' works mostly because the instrumental play and arrangements of this band simply aren't that compelling or imaginative. However, the album is impressive enough in its best performances and promising enough in the rest to keep Keene in the eyes of the nation.
Another local pop-oriented rock band, the Newkeys, has just released its first album, "Acts of Love" (Ruby NK0100). Area rock fans might hear something vaguely familiar in the band's sound, because the group's lead singer, Tom Lofgren, sings in the same boyishly vulnerable voice as his brother Nils. With three songwriters, two guitarists and a keyboardist, the band embraces a fairly broad stylistic palette. However, most of it is applied to a rather conventional pop sound that seems uninformed by the last 15 years of rock music, much less new wave.
Ironically, Lofgren seems to take up this issue of being outdated in what is one of the record's most strikingly modern songs, "Permanent Wave." The song's taut rhythm arrangement, chattering guitar and spacy keyboard effects build a tension reinforced by Lofgren's intense vocal delivery. Unfortunately, the lyrical payoff -- "ride on my permanent wave" -- isn't that satisfying and points to the lyrical awkwardness that tends to undermine much of this record.
The social commentary and allegory that run through songs like "Holy War" and "Matchstick Mansion" are too simplistic and transparent to carry any emotional force. That's a shame because the band does have melodic gifts that, in Chuck Sullivan's "The Traitor's Last Friend" and especially Ronnie Newmyer's "Acts of Love," are undeniably attractive. In fact, when Lofgren soars over the Caribbean-flavored keyboards in "Acts of Love," the Newkeys' sound is irresistible.