Monday, 30 April 2012

Keane - Strangeland

Tune into any modern-day British or American tough-on-the-heart soap or medical drama, and I can guarantee that Keane will be found amidst the soundtrack of pop, rock and piano ballads. Over the years, the Sussex trio - touring bassist Jesse Quin though now a permanent member of the band, couldn't really be counted here, no offense Quin - have found themselves seemingly the first artists network producers have reached for so as to fill these tense empathetic scenes near the end of a 60-minute stream of scripted acting. Indeed, piano-rock has become a staple in soundtracking the hope, the fear, the tensity and the realization that too has made itself a necessary component in contemporary drama. And while the band have pushed into more testing experimental grounds - be it, the electronic unsettling of 'Under The Iron Sea', or the 80s-influenced synth-pop passing of 'Perfect Symmetry' - you'd think these guys had been chained to a Yamaha or Roland whenever it was time to put pen to paper on their music. 'Strangeland', four years in the making - or two if you want to consider 'Night Train' a worthy contributor of artistic development and output - is no exception. And while the honesty, and a result, vulnerability that was showcased quite respectively on their debut, is just-as-apparent here, it's hard to figure out whether these guys are looking back, just for inspiration.

The first track 'You Are Young' won't necessarily reel you into the album, but the distant guitar strings and sandy percussion do provide some interesting sounds here. Tom Chaplin's vocals, and indeed his voice, retains the previous semantics of hopeful reflection and conclusion we've come to expect from him, and so too does lead instrumentalist Tim Rice-Coxley lay the piano atop all this, refusing to waver from the band's signature cautiously-treading key changes. 'Silenced By The Night' likewise keeps to the same mindset of piano above all else, even if Chaplin attempts to bellow his lyrics out as if the unchanging concept is anything worthwhile to the listener. The treading of keys makes for a note-worthy shimmer of fantastical textures, but aside from this, what is considered the lead single feels almost too fantastical and out-of-focus.

Piano music will always be one of those things where when it works, it's like some emotional delicacy which makes you wonder how anybody could not have got it right before. But when it doesn't, the risk that it comes across as part-hollow, part-filler, only increases. Fortunately, 'Sovereign Light Cafe' comes as both something refreshing - optimistic and promising in its initial build-up - but also, quite enjoyable in a non-analytical respect. Rice-Oxley doesn't attempt to be overly-dominant with his strikes of piano keys, Chaplin doesn't target his audience so as to make them weep or moan at the lyrical vibes of his song-writing (his voice really making its mark both in and out of harmonic unison) and the drumbeats and other light-hearted percussion work is quite charming. It's one of those songs where the vocals accompany the instrumentation - and vice-versa - rather well and it gives the verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure some credibility in the wider aspect.

Follower 'On The Road' too breaks away from the mold with its sudden stomping-and-clapping percussion, guitar work providing a bubbling marsh of underlay below this sudden flush of rhythm and pace. It gives me a 'Keep The Car Running' vibe [Arcade Fire song] on first impressions, and it's hard to shrug that away. Beyond this, however, not only does the connectivity of other bands cease, but so too on multiple repeated listens, is the band's efforts to expand and experiment with their affixed pop structures. And even if 'Black Rain' comes off as some brooding extra-terrestrial voyage of synth-pop and light-hearted cosmic experimentalism, it's Chaplin's vocals again that bring the track crashing back down to Earth quite whimperingly with lyrics that don't really push or envelope us beyond a typical 'this happened, that happened, this happened...' scenario. But the most interesting of their experimentation's into instrument choice in the shape of 'Neon River' is a welcoming listen in its manifestation, albeit for the first minute or so, of in-and-out percussion and quirky analog electronics. Beyond this, the track merely degrades into generic piano leads and mix-filling drum hits that don't share the prior part's intrigue and character.

It's like most Keane songs - I say most, because there are some which I can exclude from this list that actually are great listens (The Iron Sea or Untitled 1, being noteworthy mentions) - come off in the same accidental product where Chaplin and Rice-Oxley are merely competing against one another for who can deliver the richest and heart-warming sounds into our ears. And it feels almost a bit too rich and close to emotional, that it lacks all solidarity and purpose. But when the piano isn't been used as a battering ram rather than a piano, it does help lift the song from off the drawing boards. 'In Your Own Time' shows encouraging signs of what both Tom and Tim can achieve if both their organic and electronic ideas fit neatly together. It's just a shame that this track is left near the end, the penultimate in this case, for us to see the band are for delivering rather than just executing and hoping for the best.

And while they can give us some interesting, and yes, enjoyable variations on a pop-rock formula that's becoming more and more diluted and devolved every passing week, the fact remains that Keane are just too centralized in their aims and objectives as musicians now, you can't help but feel a sense of mediocrity in the majority of these melodies. Fine if you're all for the predictable and the overdone, but there's only so many times you can disguise a mopey love-song or ill-feeling ballad as something worth-while. Well, I'm sure the ITV's and the NBC's of the World will be satisfied, but for me, 'Strangeland' could have had its track-listing the other way around and I'd have still come away from this album with the exact same conclusion of attitudes and feelings: meh.



  1. Fair enough. As a huge fan since "Hopes and Fears" I have to say Strangeland is peculiar in that it revisits the safer, more predictable Keane sound of the debut album, with richer sonic landscapes, but perhaps less heart in the lyrics, and melodies that often feel almost so catchy as to be cliche. I fell in love with a handful of songs in this album on first listen, but some became a one night stand, as I've found many of the album's tracks don't replay as excitingly (quite counter to pretty much every track on Perfect Symmetry or Hopes and Fears).

    "In Your Own Time" was undoubtedly this album's hidden gem, and so far I am seeing it lauded the most in every review of this album. It's too bad more songs couldn't have felt more genuinely delivered and less calculated, like this one. I really expected big things from this album after the 4 year wait and so-so EP, but most of the songs seem reliant on a heavy-handed chorus and an outstanding bridge, with the rest just slugging through predictable verses that hang on the gimmick of Tom's signature vocals.

    Here's hoping Keane is willing to explore a little more with their next release. For all the journeying in this album, "Strangeland" seems to be a pretty mundane place.

  2. From Hope and Fears to Strangeland, Keane does not disappoint, Strangeland is a great album with great songs, great melodies and great uplifting songs, Keane has done it again, can’t wait to see them in NYC at Beacon theatre on June 15.

  3. I love melody, Strangeland gives me melody.It's music, song.Hail to song, hail to melody,4out 5 stars, thank you Keane!