Monday, May 2, 2016

Tommy Keene - Places That Are Gone (1984)


When I came of age in the Washington, D.C. area in the early '80s, we were lucky enough to have a progressive rock station, WHFS-FM, that played new music that almost no other station played. Heck, they even showcased older artists no one else was played then either (John Prine, NRBQ, John Fahey), plus the DJs would spin cutting-edge New York dance records Saturday nights and obscure reggae and dub cuts every Sunday evening.

If you're only familiar with WHFS as the alternative rock powerhouse it became in the 1990s, you should know that ten years earlier, it was a different beast. Back then, it had a small-ish audience of geeky college new wave kids (ahem) and aging hippies. Moreover, WHFS in the Reagan Era still had a local focus. It went out of its way to support area artists whose music fit its focus.

Sometimes you'd hear an artist so much you'd think he or she was a national sensation, but you'd find out the artist was only living a few towns away and happened to be a WHFS favorite. Such was the case with Tommy Keene. If there was ever a local star on WHFS it was Keene and if there was ever any one release that could be considered a "WHFS record," it was his mini-album Places That Are Gone.

Keene was a D.C.-area musician who originally gained local fame with his group the Razz. His appeal widened with the release of his first solo album, Strange Alliance, in 1981. By the time he came out with this record, he had hit his stride as both a writer and performer and his local following was growing.

As such, literally every song on this six-track release received airplay on WHFS. I know people overuse the word "literally," but in this case, it's accurate. EVERY song received airplay -- and regular airplay at that.

This wasn't because Keene was friends with the DJs or some other bulls*it political reason. It was because every song on the record was great. All of it is first-rate, jangly power pop. All of it's catchy as hell. All of it's sung and played well. And all the lyrics not only have depth, but they work well within the melodies when Keene sings them (this isn't always the case when people write meaningful lyrics).

Even today, I can reel off the titles like a roll call. There's the wistful title track; the rocking-yet-melodic "Nothing Happened Yesterday;" the melancholy ballad "Baby Face;" the moody, mysterious "Back to Zero Now;" the '60s-meets-new wave "When Truth Is Found;" and the pounding Alex Chilton cover "Hey! Little Child." Not one weak song in the bunch. A letter-perfect lineup if there ever was one.

Keene went on to sign with a major label, Geffen Records, where he cut a less magical version of "Places That Are Gone" for his 1986 debut LP, Songs From the Film. Even though he was paired with legendary engineer/producer Geoff Emerick, the album was a disappointment. The AllMusic guide says the release "rounded off the edges" of Keene's sound and I couldn't have put it better.

Places That Are Gone, meanwhile, has become something of a minor collector's item, with used copies going for reasonably high prices. Well, at least I consider the prices high since I bought it for about $4 way back when. From the looks of things, it's never come out on CD, but I might be wrong (you never know if a bootleg or foreign copy made it onto the market but not onto Discogs.com).

Some of these songs ended up on various collections. But they're best heard all together, in their original track order, and sounding exactly like they did on vinyl with no extra compression or altered EQ settings. Which is why I decided to finally do a rip of it, replete with high-quality scans.

As a funny aside, I'll mention that I'm pretty sure I bought this record from the guy who co-produced it and played bass on it, Ted Niceley, a former member of the Razz. He worked at the time at an indie record store in Rockville called Yesterday and Today Records, which served as a hub for the much of the local music scene. This is where I bought Places That Are Gone one night in the fall of 1984. I still see the Yesterday and Today crowd on occasion at record shows in the Baltimore area, so I'll have to ask about this.

Related posts:
Andy Adams & Egg Cream - Egg Cream (1977)
The Attractions - Mad About the Wrong Boy (1980) 
Elvis Costello and the Attractions - Get Happy!! (US Vinyl Pressing, 1980)
Various Artists - Sharp Cuts (1980)
Color Me Gone - Color Me Gone (1984)
Marshall Crenshaw - U.S. Remix (1984)

Track list:
1. Places That Are Gone
2. Nothing Happened Yesterday
3. Baby Face
4. Back to Zero Now
5. When Truth Is Found
6. Hey! Little Child

9 comments:

  1. http://www112.zippyshare.com/v/US0lxvBy/file.html

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  2. Cool! Thanks for this. Great when local rockers resurface. Being from Boston, there is a lot below the waves....recently a rip of a production LP of one of my faves, Orchestra Luna, appeared - I had a pre-release copy years ago and loved it - so I can relate to your story.

    Really like DoBA, I found you by way of either RYP's or SilentWay's blogs (can't remember which) Rock on.

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    1. Thanks -- some similar stuff to come tomorrow.

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  3. Thanks! I remember seeing Tommy live, but can't remember where - and I was a patron of Yesterday and Today. I'd see some of those Y and T people to at record shows in Baltimore when I lived there.

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  4. I grew up not too far south of you, in rural Virginia, only about an hour from the music scene in Chapel Hill, NC (where I ended up going to college). That was the late 70s/early 80s, my high school years, and then I was in college when people like Tommy Keene were the "hot thing" in indie music. Ah, those were the days.

    I remember thinking when I got "Songs From the Film" that it wasn't nearly as good as this EP was. I agree, his sound was too polished on that album. But I DO like his later album, "Based on Happy Times." I don't know if I just connected better with the songs on that one, but it's still one of my favorite albums. Tommy has always been criminally underrated. He should have been a HUGE star.

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    1. Cool story. I'll have to give "Based on Happy Times" a listen. I vaguely remember hearing some of it in '89 or so...

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  5. We used to see Tommy Keene at the 9:30, Bayou or Wax Museum all the time. You could see him or the Slickee Boys almost any weekend. This is the Don Dixon produced one, right? I always felt the Geof Emerick one was just bland. And Y&T was the best record shop. Ted would suggest something cool based on my love of XTC and the like. Remember the shop next door that had nothing but inchers? That was a great time. Thanks

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    1. If you mean this specific album I posted, it was produced by Ted and Tommy, not Don Dixon. I includes cover scans here, so they have all the info.

      As for Y&T, I definitely do remember the store that only sold singles. I think it was the last one down. I still have some old '50s stuff. The last time I went was summer '97. Still miss it, but see Skip occasionally.

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  6. I didn't move to the Annapolis/D.C./Baltimore area until the 90's and WHFS was STILL a great station. I loved Weasel's (a D.J.) voice and approach, and his feature "My Three Songs" (where listeners would try to find the connection between three songs played in a row to win tickets) is now a staple on radio stations across the country--but Weasel originated it as far as I know (and I was traveling the country and guesting on radio shows at the time).

    I'm looking forward to hearing this EP and thanks for the memories!

    - Stinky

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