Graded on a Curve: Tommy Keene,
Laugh in the Dark

In guitar pop circles Tommy Keene is an utter fount of reliability. On the radar since the late ‘70s, he grew from underground beginnings and briefly landed on a major before transitioning into an unimpeachable elder of melodic rock, and one still active over three decades hence. Make that active and undiminished, for Laugh in the Dark finds Keene in excellent form. Featuring typically sturdy songwriting and the bold production values associated with musicians who came of age when rock radio truly mattered, and it’s out now on LP/CD/digital via Second Motion Records.

Prior to his solo career, Bethesda, MD-born Tommy Keene was in Blue Steel (with Nils Lofgren’s brother Mike), Rage (with Richard X. Heyman), and most notably the Razz, just one of the numerous groups defining Washington, DC’s late ‘70s rock scene. Releasing a pair of 7-inches and a comp track on Skip Groff’s Limp Records, the Razz scored plum opening slots for national acts on tour (reportedly Devo and the Ramones) but they never branched out beyond the local.

Keene’s solo debut was the swell Strange Alliance, the LP initially slated for Limp but ultimately self-released on Avenue in ’82 (it received a new vinyl pressing in 2013). Copious accolades stemmed from the “Places That Are Gone” EP for Dolphin (later compiled by Alias on The Real Underground CD), and after the follow-up “Back Again (Try…)” EP he was nabbed by Geffen for ‘86’s Songs from the Film and ‘89’s Based on Happy Times.

Ears ripening in the ‘90s may know the platters Keene cut for Matador, namely ‘92’s “Sleeping on a Rollercoaster,” ‘96’s Ten Years After and ‘98’s Isolation Party. More than a random signing reflecting the free-for-all atmosphere of the period (far from it, the Strange Alliance reissue came out on Matador exec Gerard Cosloy’s 12XU label), the results reinforced his veteran status, with a harder edge making clear he wasn’t creating in a vacuum.

Amongst the most respected of long-serving power-pop torchbearers, Keene’s extensive credits sub for commercial success; he’s played in the touring band of Replacement Paul Westerberg, hit the road as a member of Velvet Crush and Robert Pollard’s Boston Spaceships, and additionally recorded with the Guided by Voices leader under the moniker the Keene Brothers.

The 21st century has proven just as fertile; his sixth studio effort in the last fifteen years, Laugh in the Dark follows up 2013’s superb Excitement at Your Feet: The Tommy Keene Covers Album, the title of which should be self-explanatory. And adding to the discography is a live disc and two collections, the most recent Tommy Keene You Hear Me: A Retrospective 1983-2009 spreading 41 selections across two CDs to cogently state the case for Keene’s work as unadulterated guitar pop treasure.

All this background provides necessary context on a guy who’s maintained an appreciable level of quality for longer than a significant segment of the listening public has been alive, but more important is how the worthiness is so easily applicable to Laugh in the Dark. Extending rather than merely copying his prime inspirations (the big three being The Beatles, Stones, and Who) is exactly why Keene remains relevant.

Opener “Out of My Mind” bursts forth with immense fidelity, the sort that resonates splendidly as it wails out of a cheapo set of speakers, and especially from inside a motor vehicle in the process of speeding down the interstate. It’s a fairly basic recipe; hooky guitar, hard-hitting drums, propulsive bass, and hearty lead singing as vocal harmony accentuates the assured catchiness of the writing.

Frankly it’s surprising how often this mixture is botched in the execution. Sometimes there’s a lack of grit, at other moments the tunefulness gets undersold, but as Keene’s musical raison d’être is the delivery of melodic rock classique, the outcome herein benefits from clarity of vision alongside primo influences. Specifically, “Dear Heloise” offers a hint of Big Star and Move-era Jeff Lynne as filtered through Pollard.

Fans of GBV’s albums for TVT that aren’t already hip to Keene’s oeuvre should find Laugh in the Dark cruising straight up their boulevard, the Pollard-esque title “Last of the Twilight Girls” only deepening the circumstance; diving headfirst into the post-Big Star zone, the song possesses enough amp crunch to situate it as a contemporary proposition while simultaneously embracing the timelessness of the pop-rock paradigm.

As mentioned above, Keene is an extender not a throwback, and while it’s wrong to presume a musician is also an avid listener, the strains of ‘80s Hoboken comprising “All the Lights are Alive” underline its writer as a rock fan of no small stature. And though previously his ideas have occasionally expanded a bit too much, the lengthier entries here resist overstaying their welcome, with exhibit-A the five minutes of the title track.

“Laugh in the Dark” is an exemplary slab of moodiness brandishing John Richardson’s large beat and Keene’s exquisite soloing near the end. Smartly wrapping up side one, the flip begins with a touch of the anthemic in “I Belong to You,” a niftily succinct passage of string chime inserted between sing-along choruses.

Even trimmer is “Alone in these Modern Times,” the number possessing emotional weight missing in standard issue power pop; aiding in the translation is the unfussy verve of Brad Quinn’s bass and a tidy axe break. Shifting gears considerably is the sprightly “I Want it to be Over Now,” an almost jangle-pop ambiance (check that solo) contrasting superbly with the dejectedness of Keene’s lyrics. It’s a maneuver not uncommon, yet in the hands of a master it still succeeds mightily.

And make no mistake; Keene is a master at this stuff, combining gleaming folk-pop strum with bloozy slide emphasizing said Stones fandom on “Go Back Home.” It leads into the six and a half minutes of “All Gone Away,” a pop-trippy keyboard entering the equation as the finale climaxes with rousing soloing and Richardson giving his kit a good battering.

Choosing Keene’s strongest record is no easy task, and the difficulty is testament to his artistic achievement amid marketplace neglect. Compounding the situation is the nature of the style in which he excels, with modestly-scaled beauty moves favored over grand statements. But Laugh in the Dark is a major development in a career of rare longevity and worth; if it’s not Tommy Keene’s best, it doesn’t miss the mark by much.


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