“Behind the Parade”
Over the course of a three-decade career replete with creative triumphs and commercial disappointments, Northern Virginia native Tommy Keene has acquired a lamentable reputation as the can’t-miss kid who somehow did. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Keene released album after album featuring brilliant, thoughtful power-pop that could appeal to a mass audience without condescending to it.
As a sterling and inventive guitar player, he served as a sideman to aesthetically like-minded admirers Paul Westerberg and Robert Pollard. Despite the dogged devotion of a committed fan base and the rabid endorsement of his taste-making peers, Keene has never attained anything greater than a modest cult following. Rock-and-roll has never been a meritocracy, but Keene’s illogical lack of ascendancy is a miscarriage of justice that merits an investigation.
On his new release, “Behind the Parade,” Keene reminds us why we should be taking greater notice. The rousing opener, “Deep Six Saturday,” is a perfect amalgam of the grit, hooks and jangle that once made the late power-pop godfather Alex Chilton a legend. Keene’s slow-burning title track weds a melancholy sentiment (“everybody has a breaking heart”) with a driving minor-key melody that recalls the best of Tom Petty. “Nowhere Drag” narrates a life of ecstatic gutter-dwelling before resolving into an intense and lyrical guitar solo that wouldn’t sound out of place on a mid-’90s Dinosaur Jr. record.
For an artist of Keene’s vintage, “Behind the Parade” feels fresh and energetic. Longtime fans will welcome the addition to his formidable catalogue. For those late to the game, it provides a perfect entry point for becoming familiar with Keene.
— Timothy Bracy
Recommended Tracks: “Deep Six Saturday,” “Behind the Parade,” “Nowhere Drag”
“The Rip Tide”
Neither a leap forward nor a troubling stagnation, “The Rip Tide,” the third full-length album from Beirut, is a solidifying of the band’s unique blend of influences. Leader Zach Condon gently de-emphasizes the Eastern European and Gypsy folk strains that were dominant on previous recordings and pulls forward a sweeping pop melancholia.
The album’s charms are encapsulated in the lead single, “East Harlem,” which sways gracefully atop a framework of martial bass drum and piano. But it’s the song’s instantly resonating hook and Condon’s wistful vocal that define it — and sets down a signature that the record’s eight other songs echo in some form.
At a concert at the Sixth & I Synagogue several years ago, Condon insisted that the crowd stand up for Beirut’s performance despite the contemplative nature of the venue. On “The Rip Tide,” it’s almost as if he’s asking his audience to stay seated and ponder. From the Brian Eno-ish title track to the downright sad “Goshen,” introspection is the order of the day.
Even the lovely “Payne’s Bay,” which seems to be building toward a joyous release on a bed of percolating horns and strings, pauses mid-song and catches itself. “I’ve been headstrong today,” Condon sings as a tuba belches in agreement. Only “Santa Fe,” a bouncy ode to Condon’s home town, feels remotely celebratory.
Still, the record’s somber undertones should both reassure and delight fans of the band’s singular sound. The group, which comprises six core members and scattered guests, seems content to explore all corners of the sonic territory it had conquered. Unlike a band that rashly moves away from what it’s worked to establish, Beirut has added another rich recording to its legacy. A legacy that sounds more impressive with each passing year.
— Patrick Foster
Recommended Tracks: “East Harlem,” “Payne’s Bay,” “Santa Fe”
Nomads from the Sahara of northern Mali, this band of Tuareg rebels came together in a Libyan refugee camp in the late ’70s before gaining wider acclaim, with its first album to receive international distribution, in 2001. Its fifth release in a decade, “Tassili” eschews the North African and Middle Eastern rock of its predecessors in favor of filigreed arrangements built on acoustic guitar and traditional percussion. Spirited and mesmerizing throughout, the result is something of a cross between the griot blues of Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touréand the more lyrical expressions of North America’s Delta blues.
Longing and rootlessness pervade the album’s dozen tracks, which often draw on physical imagery of the desert to evoke feelings of spiritual and political desolation. Resistance, though, can be heard in equal measure. A lilting drone featuring unison vocals sung in the Tamashek dialectic, “Imidiwan Win Sahara” at once laments the Tuareg people’s loss of freedom and urges Saharan refugees everywhere to unite. The cascading pitter-patter at the close of the funk-inflected “Tenere Taqhim Tossam” is the sound of the first rain to fall in five years in the southern part of Algeria, where the album was recorded.
TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone and Wilco’s Nels Cline help out on guitar in spots. “Ya Messinagh,” a prayer for forbearance, features the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, whose mournful horns evoke a New Orleans funeral march and the unearthly moaning of country blues pioneers such as Blind Willie Johnson and Charley Patton.
— Bill Friskics-Warren
Recommended Tracks: “Tenere Taqhim Tossam,” “Ya Messinagh,” “Imidiwan Win Sahara”