Album of the Week, February 10: Songs From the Film by Tommy Keene

SongsFromtheFilm Maryland native Tommy Keene should have been a star. Initially trained on classical piano, he began drumming in high school, switching to guitar in college. He backed up a handful of musicians and toured with a half-dozen bands of his own before launching a solo career with the support of previous bandmates. After the self-released Strange Alliance, Keene was picked up by North Carolina label Dolphin and released two critically-praised EPs. Places That Are Gone received four-star reviews and was the Village Voice‘s #1 EP of 1984. That buzz, based on his unerring sense of pop craftsmanship and his great voice and guitar work, landed him a contract with Geffen records. His first release for the label was Songs From the Film, one of the best power pop albums ever recorded.

Title Songs From the Film
Act Tommy Keene
Label Geffen Release Date 1986
Producer Geoff Emerick
U.S. Chart  148 U.K. Chart  n/c
  1. Places That Are Gone
  2. In Our Lives
  3. Listen To Me
  4. Paper Words and Lies
  5. Gold Town
  6. Kill Your Sons
  7. Call On Me
  8. As Life Goes By
  9. My Mother Looked Like Marilyn Monroe
  10. Underworld
  11. Astronomy
  12. The Story Ends

The disc kicks off with a new version of the title track from his breakout EP. Places That Are Gone is pure pop gold, with a delicious hook and potent delivery. Working with his regular band serves Keene well, and the sound is tight and gorgeous. The wistful tone continues with In Our Lives, another song of memories and determination. The energy continues with Listen to Me — a stark, powerful plea — and the bitter Paper Words and Lies. The melodic rocker Gold Town rounds out this breakneck set as side one get ready to wrap up.

A noted songwriter in his own right, Keene is also noted for his knowledge of pop history and his knack for picking perfect songs to record. The lone cover on the album ends side one, brilliant version of Lou Reed’s Kill Your Sons. Keene takes the deeply personal song and makes the feelings more universal. He also amps up the energy a bit, cranking out a wonderful guitar line.

Side two kicks off with Call On Me, a more hopeful song. A promise of support to someone who has been failed by too many others, it’s a wonderful pledge driven by a great melody. As Life Goes By returns to the wistful mode, moving Keene back to the role of observer. My Mother Looked Like Marilyn Monroe is a delightful look at how memory works and the power of childhood to shape our lives. Poignant and biting, it surges through a chorus that Keene nearly spits out by the end of the song. Underworld is a slower, quiet song, continuing the introspective vein; Astronomy is a similarly quiet tune, brief and elliptical.

The album ends with its strongest track, the compelling The Story Ends. After all the maybes and might-have-beens of the previous 11 songs, it’s a powerful closer and a brilliant power pop ballad. While there is no literal film, the songs work as a virtual soundtrack, creating a series of scenes deftly sketched in sound. You can imagine the camera panning out and the credits beginning to roll as Keene moans about the end of the story.

Provided with lackluster support by its hit-hungry label, the album faded away, as did its successor. Keene was then dropped from the roster and has made a strong career on independent labels and regular touring. Sadly, this amazing album has suffered from Geffen’s disorder, a phenomenon in which releases on that label from the early 80s become almost impossible to find. It was the object of a massive re-issue campaign that finally saw a CD release in 1999. That disc includes three outtakes from the LP — of varying but decent quality — and a live cover of the Flamin’ Groovies’ Teenage Head. It also includes all five tracks from the brilliant EP Run Now, a very welcome addition.

FURTHER LISTENING: A master craftsman, Keene is hardly prolific, having released only a dozen albums of original material in 30 years. All of them are strong offerings. The finest are his second Geffen album, Based On Happy Times, which rocks a bit harder and features a couple of songs co-written with Jules Shear. The 2011 release Behind the Parade is a power pop delight and easily his most consistent and cohesive disc since Songs From the Film. Due to his label switches and numerous EPs, there are also a handful of compilations available. The Real Underground is a great collection of unreleased material, B-sides, and EP tracks from his early career. The abysmally named Tommy Keene You Hear Me is a two-disc retrospective of his career through 2009 and a great overview.

About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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