Eleven full-lengths, four EPs, three compilations and one live album into the game, Tommy Keene is in the midst of a creative roll that, in the space of just six years, has yielded four studio albums — five, if you count 2010 career overview Tommy Keene You Hear Me: A Retrospective 1983-2009. The rock savant’s new offering, Laugh in the Dark, is the latest in a fruitful partnership with North Carolina’s Second Motion Records label, comprises ten fresh Keene nuggets meticulously assembled over the course of six months, a period in which his “unobvious covers” record Excitement at Your Feet saw release to unanimous critical acclaim.
Keene, previously of D.C.-area combo the Razz, hit the national scene in 1982 with Strange Alliance. Then in 1984 a six-song platter of pop perfection titled Places That Are Gone (Dolphin) landed him high on the CMJ charts and atop the Village Voice Pazz & Jop EP of the Year poll. Blatantly romantic, unapologetically melodic, bittersweet but absolutely invigorating, it still stands as a powerful statement. He made enough noise in the early ’80s to get the majors involved, leading to 1986’s Songs From the Film (Geffen). Produced by Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick, the album spawned two MTV videos and spent 12 weeks on Billboard’s Top 200. The accompanying Run Now EP led to the singer as well as its title track appearing in the Anthony Michael Hall movie Out of Bounds.
For 1989’s Based on Happy Times (Geffen) Keene headed down to Ardent Studios in Memphis to record with producers John Hampton and Joe Hardy. The ironically titled disc is the darkest album in the Keene catalog, with heavier guitars, fewer jangles, and a more brooding, fatalistic outlook. Following that he took a break from recording, eventually signing with Matador for 1996’s Ten Years After and 1998’s Isolation Party. (During this period he also briefly spent time in Paul Westerberg’s touring band.) Between 2000 and 2004 he released a live disc called Showtunes (Parasol), The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down (SpinArt) and rarities/demos/unreleased-tracks collection Drowning: A Tommy Keene Miscellany (Not Lame).
Back on the road in 2004, a trek opening for Guided By Voices led to his joining Robert Pollard in ’06 as a touring member of his post-GBV band the Ascended Masters and, two years later, Boston Spaceships. Meanwhile, 2006 also saw the release of Crashing the Ether (Eleven Thirty), recorded primarily by Keene himself at home, along with Blues and Boogie Shoes, a collaboration with Pollard under the Keene Brothers moniker. An initial effort for Second Motion, 2009’s In the Late Bright, was soon joined by Tommy Keene You Hear Me: A Retrospective 1983-2009, a two-CD collection holding over 40 of his best tunes. Then in 2011 he delivered the masterful Behind the Parade, boasting emphatic hooks, irresistible refrains and vibrant, jangly melodies with a distinctly ’60s sensibility.
The Leatherwoods were a loose duo comprised of Kansas-to-Minneapolis transplants Todd Newman and Tim O’Reagan, with assistance from utility man “Pablo Louseorama” (aka Paul Westerberg, who co-wrote two songs while contributing guitar, bass and keyboards). Topeka Oratorio is a lost classic that skirts the edges between exuberant power pop and mournful folk-rock, a record that’s all the more lovable because it’s so utterly minor.
O’Reagan went on to play drums with Joe Henry and the Jayhawks, and piecing together a solo album. Newman returned to Kansas, leaving behind an embittered, only half-humorous ditty called “The Twin Tone Years” (“all I got is this lousy T-shirt”). That’s one of the six songs on Too Sad for Words, a record that lacks the esprit of its predecessor but essentially offers more of the same: acoustic garage-pop with jaunty melodies, aching vocals and a generally downbeat demeanor.