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.
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)
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