Tommy Keene – The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down

Tommy Keene
The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down

Meet Tommy Keene, the critics’ best friend. Mr. Keene’s been making solid grown-up pop music for years and years, and he has rightfully received bunches of critical nods and devotionals. Want to hear some classic pop’n’rock action, but don’t feel like spinning that Badfinger record for the millionth time? Then slide good ol’ Tommy on the turntable and let the pleasing sounds whisk you away to some summery locale where everyone’s not quite as young and beautiful as they initially seemed but still fairly attractive nonetheless.
The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down, the latest in a substantial line of Keene albums, possesses 12 tracks of ragged pop splendor. Keene’s got hooks up to here, a good grasp of the guitar, and a rugged yet sweet voice that recalls Westerberg or Chilton more than, say, Matthew Sweet or Robin Zander. And yeah, he’s got the most important aspect of power-pop down tight, that being the song-writing chops. Take the opening track, the perfectly alright “Begin Where We End,” which a friend mistook for the Replacements when heard over a telephone, but which sounds to me more like Dave Pirner singing lead on a hi-fi Guided by Voices song. There’s nothing amazingly new or awesome about this song, but it remains a fundamentally great pop song – it’ll make you dance and get your head bobbing, unless you don’t do that sort of thing. “Hanging Over My Head” and “All Your Love Will Stay” follow with more right-minded rock music, and either of ’em would fit nicely on Big Star’s second album. “Big Blue Sky” ends with a bit that sounds almost exactly like the breakdown to GBV’s “Official Ironman Fight and Rally Song,” but it works well here, so no bones. Sitting square in the center of the record is the 16 ½-minute epic “The Final Hour,” a bona fide accomplishment, as the psychedelic rocker never gets old despite its inordinate length. This may not be the best song on the record, but it is surely the most impressive.
There is one decided misstep on this record, however. The boogie-woogie inflected “The Man Without a Soul” takes a quick dive into the unforgivably cheesy, with its fun-lovin’ horns and burlesque stutter. This is just bad, cloying nonsense, and coming as the second track, it almost derails the whole thing before you can realize how great most of the songs are. Another, more minor, quibble is that some of the songs start to seem a bit interchangeable by the end, but then again you could pretty much say that about most power-pop records.
Let’s just be thankful that people still make these sorts of power pop records; it’s a proven fact that power-pop does not sell, never has sold, and likely never will sell, so the benefits of making music like this must come more from the satisfaction of a job well done than from pecuniary compensation. On the Big Star Live disc released by Ryko some 10 years ago, a live radio session from 1972 or ’73, the disc jockey asks Alex Chilton if he wasn’t concerned about the anachronism of playing Beatles-esque pop music well after its time. That was three decades ago, and already power-pop was seen as being old news. Although The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down isn’t old news, every song on here does sound old and almost recognizable, as if you had heard them all once or twice but couldn’t quite place where. Tommy Keene will probably seem anachronistic to most DOA readers, but despite mining a well-picked-over lode, Keene still finds the precious rock he was looking for.