Tommy Keene is a cat with nine lives. Over the past three decades, he has survived the ravages of the music industry, creating a lengthy catalogue of songs that have finally been given the respect they have been due since his early days.
While this two-CD set is extensive, there are some strange omissions, and at times there's some missteps amongst the 41 songs. But ultimately, You Hear Me properly reflects Keene's innate ability to craft the perfect pop song.
For someone who has lived within the rock critic community for as long as Keene has been recording, knowledge of his abilities has spiraled amongst various avenues of discourse among music nerds. Keene self-released his Strange Alliance debut album (which strangely is ignored for this retrospective because of Keene's personal distaste for the material undermining the credibility of the collection), and with it, his cult status began to grow. After a couple of critically received EPs that landed him universally on alternative best of lists, Keene was signed to Geffen Records for two brilliant but poor-selling albums.
Keene was dropped with the rush to sign the next big thing during the grunge era, and weaved his way through several "darling" major indies. He released a couple of albums on Matador during the late '90s before hooking up with his present label, Second Motion, an artist-focused label specializing in reissues and retrospectives.
The material from his Geffen days still shines brightly, illustrated by a trio of songs from his 1986 major-label debut, Songs From The Film. "Paper Words And Lies" and "My Mother Looked Like Marilyn Monroe" are two of the best songs from an era of relatively over-hyped and forgettable music. Where Keene really hits his stride is with the haunting anguish that's infused in every second of the ballad "Underworld," a song that illuminates Keene's personal troubles. It's about a gay man working in a straight-dominated, somewhat closeted industry (at the time).
Keene's follow-up, Based On Happy Times, was a darker album. Its title track seems to predict the anger percolating amongst the many young angry bands that would toll the eventual death knell of Keene's time on a major record label. "When The Vows Break," co-written with Jules Shear, another highly underrated song writer of the era, is another crafted gem.
After the momentum built by the two Geffen albums, the second disc loses a bit of steam, much as Keene's musical output. It took several years to recover, and "Love Is a Dangerous Thing," which opens disc two, is an average song compared to his previous work. But Keene picks up where he'd left off with "Driving Into The Sun" and "Compromise."
But then the second biggest omission occurs with the inclusion of the live version of "Long Time Missing" over its studio sibling. The live version sounds great, and is a striking example of how good Tommy Keene is in live performance. But "Long Time Missing" is Keene's catchiest song of the '90s and leads off his second Matador release, Isolation Party. While the live version is good, I advice you to go directly to iTunes (DO NOT PASS GO!) and buy the studio version of "Long Time Missing."
Isolation Party is Keene's last great record illustrated by both "The World Outside" and the sweet "Never Really Been Gone" The post Isolation Party material at the back end of disc two is for the most part sketchy at best with only "Big Blue Sky" included from the very disappointing The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down of 2002. The only highlight from the last seven songs is Crashing The Ether's "Warren In The '60s" which effectively recaptures Keene's distinct power-pop charm.