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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Tommy Keene - "You Hear Me" (****)


Tommy Keene
You Hear Me: A Retrospective 1983-2009
(Second Motion Records, 2010)

I just got this 41-track double-CD retrospective of my favorite cult pop star this week and upon initial listen, I was ready to disown it because I thought it sounded so unfamiliar. But I was wrong; more than just a rehash of three decades-worth of recordings by Bethesda's influential guitar hero, it offers something different for the Tommy Keene completist (which I unabashedly am!). Once I got some perspective on what exactly I was listening to, I couldn't stop listening to it, even though I have most everything presented here. (Note: This is a review of the standard CD, not the bundled version that includes an additional 10-track bonus digital album. I wanted that but Amazon had a pre-order special of a mere $14.99 for the standard 2-disc edition and, well, I'm cheap!)

Basically this is the latest chapter in filling in the gaps of Keene's back catalog, updating the career retrospective that began with Alias Records' excellent The Real Underground (1993) - which covered Tommy's 80s output up through the 1992 Sleeping on a Rollercoaster EP and was highlighted by several unreleased tracks recorded with Steve Carr at Rockville's Hit and Run Studio ("Andrea," The Who's "Tattoo," "Dull Afternoon," "Don't Sleep in the Daytime," "Hey Man," the Flamin' Groovies' "Shake Some Action") that were otherwise only available on Alias' 1994 UK-only Keene comp Driving Into the Sun (which included only one "new" song: "Tell Me Something," later to turn up on a 2004 rarities compilation) - and Not Lame Record's woefully neglected treasure trove of outtakes (mostly from Songs from the Film and the still out-of-print Based on Happy Times), demos and other curios, Drowning: A Tommy Keene Miscellany (2006).



The problem was a dearth of information; Second Motion Records really should have released this retrospective with detailed liner notes - something like Tommy's informative capsule comments for Drowning - because early reviews and press releases claimed that there was only one "new" song on You Hear Me - an acoustic version of "Black & White New York," a song from Crashing the Ether (2006). But that's misleading.

See, I was in the shower listening to "Gold Town" (from Tommy's first Geffen album, 1986's Songs from the Film) when I jumped out, thinking something was wrong with the CD because the vocals were drenched in reverb and the beat seemed different, slightly slower and then it had that different ending - instead of ending on a guitar fadeout it ended on a drum beat, followed by a false ending and two more drum beats. Later, toweling off, I heard a way different version of "Don't Sleep In the Daytime" and started scratching my head. What the fuck, I thought, they released this record using the wrong masters!

I knew this was a remastered release of Tommy's back catalog and I started contemplating the countless examples of CD releases in the past in which the record companies messed up and used the wrong masters or alternate mixes (like the first Byrds CD), and I figured this was another one. But then I started researching it and found, on a discussion board thread from TK's Facebook page, Tommy's own breakdown of what was different on this release. Only then did I learn that "Gold Town" was a previously unreleased version produced by T-Bone Burnett. (It's interesting, but I still prefer the Geoff Emerick recording on Songs from the Film. But hey, it's another look at a classic tune...)

So, as a public service to other folks keen on Keene, here's my own breakdown of what's what (and from where) on You Hear Me.

You Hear Me: The Deconstruction
(Note: songs in bold = new)

Disc 1



1. Back To Zero Now
2. Mr. Roland

Tracks 1 and 2 represent the A- and B-sides of Tommy's first single from 1983 on Dolphin Records. The single was included in the 1983 re-release of his first (still unreleased) album, Strange Alliance (Avenue, 1982). "Back To Zero" is also available on the vinyl Places That Are Gone EP (Dolphin, 1984); "Back To Zero" and "Mr. Roland" also appear on the CD The Real Underground (Alias, 1993).



3. Baby Face

The first great Keene ballad, originally released on the Places That Are Gone EP and later included on The Real Underground.



4. Back Again
5. Safe In The Light

Two from the out-of-print Back Again (Try) vinyl EP (Dolphin, 1984). They also appear on The Real Underground CD.

6. Gold Town

The previously unreleased T-Bone Burnett/Don Dixon version from the original Songs from the Film sessions recorded at Reflection Studios in Charlotte, NC in 1984. Songs From The Film was essentially recorded twice, first with T-Bone Burnett and Don Dixon producing and then again with former Beatles producer Geoff Emerick for the version released on Geffin in 1986. Some of the Burnett/Dixon recordings were later released on the Run Now vinyl/cassette EP. Those tracks, plus a few more outtakes, were then included on the 1998 CD reissue of Songs From The Film. This one wasn't...until now.



7. Places That Are Gone
8. Paper Words And Lies
9. Kill Your Sons
10. Call On Me
11. Marilyn Monroe
12. Underworld
13. Astronomy

Tracks 7-13 are from the Geoff Emerick-produced sessions for Tommy's major label debut, Songs from the Film, originally released in 1986 and remastered and re-issued on CD in 1998. "Places That Are Gone" is a re-recording of the title track from Tommy's Places That Are Gone EP (Dolphin, 1984) that drops the sound-collage intro and goes straight into the music. "Places That Are Gone" also appears on The Real Underground (Alias, 1993) and the various artists compilation Poptopia: Power Pop Classics of the '80s (Rhino/Wea, 1997).

According to blogger Wilfully Obscure, a T-Bone Burnett version of track 10 - "Call On Me" - was recorded in 1984 during the first Songs from the Film sessions; would have been interesting to give that a try-out here, though the Emerick cut is pretty damned primo. Wil also claims that T-Bone produced a version of "The Story Ends" and something called "Fall Down Too" from these initial SFTF sessions. (T-Bone's "Call On Me" and "Fall Down Too" recordings are available in the 10-track bonus digital album bundle version of You Hear Me.)



14. Run Now

Title track from the 1986 Run Now EP, later included on the 1998 CD reissue of Songs from the Film. Though most of the EP was recorded in 1984 at North Carolina's Reflection Studio by T-Bone Burnette and Don Dixon, "Run Now" was a 1986 Bearville, NY-production by Bob Clearmountain. You can also see Tommy performing this song in the 1986 Michael Anthony Hall film Out of Bounds (it's also on the movie soundtrack album). But I gotta question why Second Motion didn't include the incendiary version recorded live in March 1986 at NYC's The World - the guitar-slinging workout that has become a staple of Tommy's concerts (usually a show-closer, along with the other encore "usual suspects": "Back To Zero" and "Places That Are Gone"), but still can only be heard on the out-of-print vinyl and cassette versions of the Run Now EP.



15. Nothing Can Change You
16. This Could Be Fiction
17. Based On Happy Times
18. When Our Vows Break
19. Highwire Days
20. Don't Sleep In The Daytime - unreleased Ardent version
21. A Way Out

Tracks 15-19 and 21 are from Tommy's final (and arguably best) Geffin album, Based on Happy Times (1989). The Tommy Keene group had disbanded after the Run Now EP and Keene headed down to the legendary Ardent Studios in Memphis (home of Alex Chilton and Big Star) to record with producers John Hampton and Joe Hardy, who also played on the album (Hardy on bass and organ, Hampton on drums). The fruits of his labor would be this long out-of-print album. "Nothing Can Change You" was covered by the Goo Goo Dolls in 1998 and appeared on their certified gold three-track CD-single "Slide."

Though recorded during the same Ardent Studio sessions, track 20 is an unreleased version of "Don't Sleep In the Daytime" - more drum-driven and uptempo - that hasn't seen the light of day until now. A very different, more downbeat, version - recorded with Steve Carr at Rockville's Hit and Run Studio - appears on The Real Underground CD.

The melancholy beauty "A Way Out" (exquisite mandolin solo courtesy of R.E.M.'s Peter Buck) provided the coda to Based On Happy Times and works the same magic here, closing out Disc 1 on a reflective, quiet note - before the thunderous opening salvo of Disc 2 gets things rocking once again...

Disc 2



1. Love Is A Dangerous Thing
2. Driving Into The Sun
3. Down, Down, Down

Tracks 1-3 were originally released on the 5-song Sleeping on a Rollercoaster EP (Matador, 1992). Curiously, the song "Sleeping On a Rollercoaster" turns up only on The Real Underground (Alias, 1993) - or Driving Into the Sun (Alias, 1994) if you live in the UK. "Down, Down, Down" is yet another epic Keene ballad.

A live version of "Love Is a Dangerous Thing" is one of the 10 tracks in the digital-only You Hear Me bonus bundle from Second Motion.



4. No One In This City

The first song Tommy recorded after going bi-coastal and moving from Bethesda to his current home, Los Angeles. This sounds like a re-recording of the version that appears on Drowning: A Tommy Keene Miscellany (Not Lame, 2004). Maybe not...if not, this sure sounds good for an outtake.



5. Turning On Blue
6. Your Heart Beats Alone
7. Silent Town
8. Good Thing Going
9. Compromise

Tracks 5-9 are from Tommy's return to album-length form, Ten Years After (Matador, 1996). Recorded 10 years after his Geffin debut, get it? Totally rocking with a grungier, multi-layered guitar sound that should have put him squarely in the mainstream with a commercial hit. Just like Songs from the Film. Woulda, coulda, shoulda...but like Morrisey bemoaned, The World Won't Listen. Nestled amidst all the thunder was perhaps Tommy's most poignant ballad, "Your Heart Beats Alone" - a song that continues to move me every time I hear it.



10. Long Time Missing (live)

"Long Time Missing" originally appeared on Isolation Party. But this live recording is taken from Tommy's collection of live show recordings, Showtunes (Parasol, 2001).



11. The World Outside
12. Never Really Been Gone

Tracks 11 and 12 are culled from the superb - albeit out-of-print (natch) - Isolation Party (Matador, 1998).



13. Big Blue Sky

The lone track from the underrated The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down (SpinArt, 2002).



14. Black And White NY - unreleased acoustic version
15. Warren In The 60's
16. Lives Become Lies

Tracks 15-16 are from Crashing the Ether (Eleven Thirty, 2006). My least favorite Keene album, but represented here by three tracks (so what do I know?), with track 14 being a previously unreleased acoutic version of "Black and White New York."



17. A Secret Life Of Stories
18. Save This Harmony
19. Tomorrow's Gone Tonight

Tracks 17-19 are from Tommy's most recent release of new material, In the Late Bright (Second Motion, 2009).



20. Leaving Your World Behind - cover of a 20/20 song

Add to the long list of superlative Keene covers, a list that includes "Tattoo" (The Who), "Carrie Ann" (Hollies), "Shake Some Action" and "Teenage Head" (The Flamin' Groovies), "Einstein's Day" (Mission of Burma), "Hey! Little Child" (Alex Chilton), "Our Car Club" (Beach Boys) and, of course, Lou Reed's "Kill Your Sons." The original was an album track off 20/20's awesome debut, the eponymous 20/20 (Portrait, 1979).

***

So there you have it, Keenesters.



I just wish they had included more obscure stuff here for a mass audience that otherwise wouldn't hear such lost Keene gems as "Disarray" from the Big Deal compilation Yellow Pills Volume 1 (also included on Drowning: A Tommy Keene Miscellany), or that live version of Lou Reed's "Kill Your Your Sons" that can only be found on the vinyl and cassette editions of the Run Now EP, or "Run To Midnight," which Tommy recorded while on the Not Lame Records label and which is only available on the CD that came with John M. Borack's powerpop guidebook Shake Some Action (also published by Not Lame Recording Company).



And if you really wanna get obscure, why not "The Heart (Is a Lonely Place)" from the D.C. band compilation Connected (Limp, 1981). I know - it's all probably got to do with music publishing rights and licensing issues with all the various labels TK's been on over the year - and I won't even bring up the continued absence of anything from Tommy's long-buried Strange Alliance album (or the seven unreleased demos - "End Of The World," "In Our Lives," "Walking On The Street," "I'm Your Friend," "You Break My Mind," "Someone To Blame," "Foolish Mind" - from that album that remain on the cutting room floor, according to blogger Wilfully Obscure), much less the record itself. I'm just saying...

By the way: the 10-track digital-only album includes the following, and I suppose I will have to get this someday...just to be a completist!

Places That Are Gone (alt mix by Bill Wittman from Songs From The Film
Nothing Is Grey (demo 1982)
Stuck On A Ship (Demo 1983 from Dolphin Places That Are Gone EP)
Fall Down Too (Unreleased track from T-Bone/Don Dixon album recorded July 1984
All Your Love Will Stay (Home Demo 1999)
Eyes of Youth (Home Demo 1999)
Never Really Been Gone (Live in Chicago 1998)
Call On Me (Live at Campbell University NC - 1996)
Compromise (Live at Campbell University NC - 1996)
Love Is A Dangerous Thing / Brad's Boogie (Live at Campbell University NC - 1996)