While Tommy Keene's melodic craft hardly suffered after he was dumped by Geffen in the late Eighties, his post-split lyrics revealed a sourness that was striking even for a man whose wistful hindsight made cantankerously nostalgic power-pop peers like Shoes and the dBs seem positively forward-thinking. His 1998 release Isolation Party revealed wounds just as fresh a decade later: Lyrics like "The world won't listen/To the long time missing in your life" or "Patience now, we're heading to slaughter" could be applied to villainous label execs as easily as errant lovers.
On his latest, The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down (spinART), Keene is still capable of nursing a dour mood with the best of them, but he has largely stopped picking the scabs off old wounds. This time around, a line like "just get on with your life" sounds reassuring, if not triumphant. Who knows whether this advice is aimed at a friend, a fan, or even the guy staring back from the mirror? But it's delivered with the zip of a self-help seminar leader raring to give the dawn a big smooch.
Keene's newfound resilience isn't such a surprise when you consider his musical career: His vocals and friendly melodies have often provided the sunny counterpoint to the gloom in his noggin. While nothing on Merry-Go-Round startles you like Isolation Party's left-field cover of Mission of Burma's "Einstein's Day" or its poppy original, "Tuesday Morning," the new album still manages to tweak his songwriting habits. Stax-y horns perk up "The Man Without a Soul," and former Wilco multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett's lively keyboards improve morale all around. One can only imagine the commiserating between Keene and Bennett during those sessions. But Keene's guitar eloquence remains unchanged: Song after song is crammed with crystal-clean fills and understated solos, which reinforce the melody while counteracting any vestigial sullenness seeping through in the lyrics. The tight-jawed stoicism of "The Fog Has Lifted," for example, gets shot to hell by a screaming, soaring outro--think Richard Thompson jamming on a Neil Young riff. Seems like no matter what his mouth spouts, Keene's got the joy down in his heart--or at least his fingers.
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