Believe in Something That Matters More Than Anything You Don't
491 · 24 June 04
Tommy Keene: Drowning
Keene apologizes in both his liner notes and the credits for the fake drums on a handful of the twenty demos and outtakes and rescued tracks on the vault-clearing compilation Drowning, and I don't think he meant this as a test of formative listening modes, but maybe it works out that way anyway. I'm no instrumental purist under any conditions. I grew up hearing my parents play six- and twelve-string guitar and sing folk songs, but learned early that what came out of the radio was different. Real guitars sound like tuned engines. Synthesizers make bright, ecstatic sounds that seem just as "natural" to me as grammar and roads. Voices shimmer and echo in the inherently unexplained spaces in which songs float. And drums exist to lay repeating patterns under the melodies and harmonies and howls, so not only is it sensible to etch these patterns with machines, but in a sense non-machine drumming feels like the contrivance, to me, a clever shortcut by which humans can approximate a percussion design without actually going through the process of programming it.
So when "When You Make Up Your Mind" kicks off, five songs in, with a hammeringly simplistic two-drum machine groove, the kick sound a muted half-electronic thud-click and the snare reverbed and gated into cannon-shot, Keene may cringe but I just smile and settle into the comforting math. It's a one-measure pattern repeated through the whole 3:42 song (augmented in parts by an even simpler quarter-note ride-cymbal tick), and that feels exactly right and inviting to me. I can air-drum to it, I can march to it. I don't care that the noises don't vary in any hand-articulated way. It would be a tedious loop unaccompanied, but it's not unaccompanied. The opposite: it's an accompaniment that understands and basks in its own supporting nature. After two measures of it I know that it's not going to change, and that everything else in the song will play in relation to this unvarying cadence. In a sense, the rest of the song is a study in what that one measure of drums can imply. One of rock's greatest powers, maybe, is its ability to extrapolate from pattern to catharsis.
Drowning is, by definition and construction, the least essential and least coherent Tommy Keene record. It says "miscellany" right on the cover, and it was released by Not Lame, the mordantly niched mail-order label where bands with no individual virtues beyond power-pop genre affiliation go to eke out banally chiming subsistence livings. I gave serious consideration to not buying it at all, as part of my rational consumption program. Twenty Tommy Keene songs, though, some of them from as far back as the Songs From the Film era? It was hard for to me imagine that there wouldn't be at least a few I'd really like. Of course, this is exactly the place where my rational consumption program struggles. Do I have to buy everything that I might enjoy? Especially, do I have to buy all of anything I'm already enjoying? No, probably not. And then, is this one of the things the new discipline exists to embrace or spurn?
I'm not sure I actually answered those questions. I bought the record, but sheepishly, in part because it was such a slow week otherwise, and fully prepared to regret the concession almost immediately. It won't make the next hard decision any easier that this one turns out to have been excellent. I know intellectually, and can even hear, how this collection fails to collect, and cheats by not having been asked to, but something deeper inside my skulls insists, with willful obliviousness of context, that this is actually Keene's masterpiece.
Coherency, after all, is easy to overrate. Keene's studio albums were prisoners of the time of their creation, where this collection is free to period-jump. This wouldn't necessarily be an advantage for everybody, but for Keene, whose conscious style has been obsessively consistent over time, the ways that its expression inevitably mutates with technology and fashion give him another vector to play with. Amplifying it further is the fact that these songs were also executed with varying amounts of attention, from extremely sketchy demos to partial and complete re-recordings. Whole Keene albums have more than once been squandered, to my ears, by drearily uniform overproduction, and maybe more by the uniformity of the overproduction than its magnitude, so I'd rather hear his songs under-constructed than over-, and variety is even better. Put together, these factors produce a twenty-song, sixty-seven minute sprawl that I glide through as if it were half as long and twice as focused. It helps, clearly, that individually some of these twenty songs are patently among Keene's best. Or maybe that's tautological, or at least backwards. Maybe Keene's songs are almost always exactly this good, individually, and "best" is a function of presentation and context as much as inspiration and craft.
Either way, Drowning holds me teetering on a sparkling razor-edge between helpless sobbing at how badly most of the rest of life occludes the intrinsic joy of awareness, and the delirious compulsion to run down the street with my iPod inflicting this incarnation of that joy on fortunate total strangers as an act of guerilla rapturism. At the uplifting extreme, "Drowning" itself opens the collection with boundlessly surging confidence, handclap-spiked choruses coalescing out of warmly textural verses. "Karl Marx" is a dizzily redemptive potential "My Mother Looked Like Marilyn Monroe" b-side that comes within an explicit Marilyn reference of obviating the need for Dan Bern's "Marilyn". "I'll Wait For You" is punchy and blasted, like the germ of something that might have grown up epic, "What Does It Matter To You" straining and glorious like the Replacements fighting off the onset of maturity. The aching Three O'Clock-ish finale, "The Scam and the Flim Flam Man", is a record-industry-hypocrisy rant that I stubbornly persist in hearing as a sweet, oblique and empathetic farewell to Bill Clinton, or what faith in him might once have symbolized.
Brighter and airier, "There's No One in This City" might be Keene's answer to Tom Scholz or Gary Wright's wistful soloing. "Tell Me Something" is chirpy and diffident, like the Wedding Present crossed with a haplessly vague notion of dub. "Time To Say Goodbye" comes out grandly sad and graciously shaky, with clangy guitar twanging over smoothly rumbling bass. "Lover's Lies" backslides towards Let's Active, and "Soul Searching" is Keene's winkiest dB's impression. But then "You Won't Find Me" is darkened and haunted, "A Wish Ago" is a muted Gin Blossoms pastiche, and "Disarray" is the blurry dream of every other great Keene song.
The demos and reductions are scattered through the running order, but are probably in the end the keys to my experience and thrill. "When You Make Up Your Mind" may be Keene's genius reduced to its sparest compositional structure. "Where Have All Your Friends Gone" is a click-track demo Keene sings into anthem. "Everything Is One Thing" could be a Keene b-side channeling Big Country b-sides. "Watch the World Go By" is a stripped guitar-and-voice four-track recording that eventually tacks on the collection's cheesiest drum-machine by far, but "We'll Always Remain Just The Same" is a snarling guitar demo as electrifying in its minimalism as Weller's solo demos for middle-period Jam songs. And at the fringes, the plonking piano dirge "I Know It's Blue" is the collection's one throwaway, but the heartbreaking auto-duet cover of "Carrie Anne", from the old eggBERT Sing Hollies in Reverse compilation, bridges almost exactly as much of pop history as I've lived through.
And probably this is the point, in music as in most else, and it isn't that anything is great or terrible as much as it represents, for a minute or a chord or a decade, everything you've survived and adored. Tommy Keene's compromises and limitations surely aren't that much nobler than those of any other hero I could choose, or a hundred singers you love as much as I detest them. He's probably right that these fake drums are mortifying, and he should have known better all along. But they are an illusion that became real for me long ago, and now they sound to me exactly like drums. And these songs, and Keene's purring guitars and his thin, melancholy voice, are as close as anything to what my body has learned that songs sound like, and truest to themselves when they are captured before they've attempted to become anyone else. I could play this music for you and hope, but that's not quite what I want, or even what I hope. I'm supposed to be an evangelist of songs, and maybe I try to be for a week at a time every once in a while, but I don't want to play you my sound of songs, I want you to play yourself your own. What you love always says as much about you as it does about your idols, and I want you to have a story you tell yourself. What you love is a song about what you want to be. I listen to these effortless, timeless songs, and want my own most automatic instincts to be more trustworthy. These random, half-finished songs are amazing, and I want to discover that my most intransigent flaws are gifts, and that I am better than my own plans. I am preparing to marry in the ardent hope and dizzying belief that there is a sense in which Belle embodies more of my sense of my own potential than I could ever itemize by myself, and in the terrifying awareness that there's a sense in which I have to figure out how to embody that much of hers. And if we make records more often than we fall in love, it's undoubtably because the records matter less. But then, what we do when it matters is survival, and what we do when it doesn't is why.