The Upshot: With summer, comes the need to kick out some jams and, given the mood, lighten the hell up. This is traffic-busting music for driving with the top down and one promising debut from a little-known journeyman with his eye on a prize.
BY ERIC THOM
Sadly, the number of good power pop albums released these days can be counted on one hand or less. Then, out of left field comes Tony Keats and a strong first release, Radio Sounds. We wish radio sounded this good anymore.
To be fair, these eleven, fresh-sounding tracks lean more towards ‘pop’ than they do ‘power’, yet each perky composition is carefully thought out and expertly played – featuring Keats’ prominent vocals and guitar, joined by Brian Pitts (bass/vocals), Kyle Walsh (drums/vocals), Brian Rogers (pedal steel), Don Eanes (piano, organ, clavinet) and co-producer, Dave Coleman (guitar, percussion). It’s the energy that rises out of this combination of players that thrusts their sound into the power category. Each arrangement sings – even before Keats utters a lyric – and that’s the secret ‘power’ behind each song. You can feel the fact that these guys love what they’re doing.
“Radio Sounds” – the initial track – sneaks up on you with its gentle reliance on Eanes’ piano and Rogers’ pedal steel. Yet, it soon amps up at the 1:04 mark, thanks to a tougher, full-band sound that makes the most out of tasty guitar, pedal steel and some subtle B3. This lone track frames Keats as a bit of a Jackson Browne clone (I know…not known for his power pop) while the guitar, here, is distinctly Lindley-esque. That comparison is immediately dashed with the upbeat chords of a more playful “Love & Affection” as Keats and crew deliver something sounding more akin to early Graham Parker, its nicely Vox-ish,? and the Mysterians organ vamp updated by sharp-toothed guitar stings and an juiced-up rhythm section. This is clearly driving music. The equally feel-good “Something Changed” features horns, pedal steel and has an underbelly of guitar strength plus a killer chorus.
The lone cover on the disc is a surprising one. Imagine having the unmitigated gall to cover something as sacred as Van Morrison’s “Cleaning Windows”? Yet, thanks to its ramped-up production levels – including the same uncredited horn section, great B3 and clavinet from Don Eanes – Keats’ warm vocal fits the track perfectly, right down to cloning Van’s quirky asides. One of the disc’s strongest outings is found in the beautiful “East Nashville Fireflies”. And beautiful is more than appropriate, given the delicate intro of piano, pedal steel and acoustic guitar as Keats offers a gentler, kinder vocal to fuel this love song to his favorite place to live (although it may well be about something else…). Throughout, Keats’ voice is the album’s greatest strength and he uses it to alternate between the thoughtful and heartfelt and, as required, the half-crazed, energetic and committed. The somewhat surprising, over-the-top intensity of “The Getaway“ suggests an uncharacteristic display of muscle to offset the band’s softer side, demonstrating their potential as tougher, more guitar-oriented rockers. It’s a nice balance – as evidenced at the halfway point of this song, where things slow down to reveal the same strong chorus set to the backdrop of a more focused, but still-gnarly, guitar treatment. A mellow ballad in the form of “The Only Way I Know How”, Keats’ voice is showcased further, and it seems there’s little he can’t do, vocally, the background instrumentation always working to turn what might be ‘harmless ditties’ into serious contenders, compositionally. “To Be Happy” stands out for its powerful, singalong-worthy chorus – a Beach Boy-ready sunshine song boasting hooks to spare (especially in the song’s final minute) plus some tasteful use of pedal steel. Likewise, “Raining In New Orleans” is, perhaps, Radio Sounds’ strongest foot forward. Not unlike Brook Benton’s “Rainy Night In Georgia”, it’s a soul-packed, slo-mo mood-maker which accentuates Keats’ abilities as front man, aided and abetted by his surprisingly tight band of fellow Nashvillians. It’s a warm, elegant track featuring great B3, the always-outstanding drum spark of Walsh (who, together with Brian Pitts’ quietly-powerful basslines, make this a rhythm section to reckon with), led by Keats’ confident vocal and some of his strongest songwriting. The somewhat jarring “Une Cerveza” (due to its sequencing after the exquisite “Raining”) is a fun, crowd-pleaser of a song, using punchy horns to drive it into Keats’ Jimmy Buffet moment, with another strong hook all its own.
The soft touch of “The Dream” serves as an appropriate coda to close this 11-track release. Another kinder, gentler treatment of the subject matter which – with thanks to some weeping pedal steel – picks up the pace enough for allow Keats’ to again rekindle the Parker-esque snarl in his voice to keep things interesting. As his band changes the instrumentation around him, all firm snare hits and swelling B3, the song proves a memorable closer – as Keats’ Dream, is still alive and far from over.