Rock lifer Tommy Keene: 'People just want Tommy Keene Pop Songs'

Tommy Keene

Tommy Keene

Sometimes I think Tommy Keene is the Cary Grant of rock 'n' roll. He’s so consistently superb at his art, never insists that you see all the work that went into it and is so entertaining, that, too often I fear, music fans take him for, well, Grant-ed.

Regarding the guy’s groovy, guitar-stoked power pop, I hope that such sins of omission do not occur again this fall. Because Keene drops yet another fine new record, Laugh In The Dark, on September 4. He follows it with an appearance at 7th Street Entry on Saturday. One request from your humble narrator: Do not simply note these events with a smile and go on your way. If you care about exquisite, carefully crafted rock and a live performer who can light up the night, go to the show, get the album.

My conversation with Keene starts with my assertion that he took “a bit of a departure” this time out. On songs such as “Dear Heloise” and “All Gone Away,” there are unsettling keyboard sounds and weirdly treated vocals that make a nicely creepy addition to this veteran rocker’s usual template of gorgeous melodies, ringing guitars, and lyrics as lovely and sad as life itself.

Keene, a pleasant, easygoing dude, is tickled by my observation, but demurs, doesn’t seem to buy it. But is he being modest? Or are all those psychedelics I took as a teen finally taking their revenge, adding sounds to my mind that are not actually on the record? 

“Were you aware of taking some big chances on some of the songs?” I wonder. “It seems like you produced some avant-garde pop this time.”

“No, just the opposite,” Keene says, as patiently as a doctor in Woodstock’s "Bummer Tent," talking down some acid-washed hippie who’s hallucinating. “I felt this album was everything that Tommy Keene would do. There’s loud guitars, there’s a Beatle-esque long song with a mellotron, there are fast songs, there are your typical ballads. The one tune that seems to me to be a departure is ‘Go Back Home,’ which is kind of bluesy. And I added that slide guitar. Which is perfect, because it sounds Stones-y, or very Led Zeppelin III.”

So, did I imagine, as much as I love "Laugh," that it takes some severe tangents from The Tommy Keene Sound? The boy from Bethesda, who grew up loving the British Invasion, gently disagrees with his drug-addled interlocutor.

“I didn’t really get the impression that I was kinda going out on a ledge,” Keene says. “It’s something I always try to do. But I never really succeed, because I think I have this ingrained kind of musical palette of things that I like. And I usually end up writing a record of things that I want to hear. My music is sort of out of fashion. But I think that since my first records got attention, the people who have stayed with me, really like that. You know, that I’m out of style.”

It’s a hard job, but a noble one, trying to convince Keene that not only is this one cool record, but there’s no way to really be in style anymore. And even if you could figure out how, rather than fit in with what’s happening, you’d probably rather work behind the counter at Bob’s Big Boy. Especially when there’s so much “horrible dance pop” out there, that Keene says he hears, “by accident, on the radio.”

Besides, who needs the votes of kids who listen to Iggy Azalea when you have the support of rock masters like Paul Westerberg and Guided By Voices’ leader Robert Pollard? When not helming his own band, Keene has been selected by both men to play lead guitar in their touring outfits. In fact, regarding the new album the reclusive Pollard sent an e-mail rave to Keene, who forwarded it to me. It is, simply, an unabashed mash note from one great songwriter to another. It reads:

“Tommy, your new album is fantastic. Right out of the gate and all the way through (it always is). How can you not have a hit? ‘Go Back Home.’ Wow! Congratulations.”

Finally, there is the guy’s greatest fear. One that plays into my initial thought that he’d made an atypical Tommy Keene record with Laugh In The Dark. And again, proves me so wrong.

“Whenever I think I should get weird and do something unusual, sort of like Big Star’s Third, I always pull back,” Keene says, ingenuous guy that he is. “I’m always afraid, though, that the people who buy my records are going to be disappointed. Why alienate the small fan base you have? Every record, I say, ‘This time I’m going to do something really different. And I just stop in the middle and go, ‘You know what? People just want Tommy Keene Pop Songs.”

I pause for a second, and in my druggy quagmire of a mind, I run through the beautifully crafted, catchy tunes on Laugh In The Dark. And then think, who am I to argue? Hey, if I was Tommy Keene? I wouldn’t change a thing either.

Tommy Keene 

With: Sonicbouquet and Danger Rons & the Spins

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, September 12.

Where: 7th Street Entry. 

Tickets: $8-$10.