May , 2012
Review by A. Alexander Harrison
Label: Island Records
Admittedly, when I dug into this album for the first time, I knew next to nothing about Keane. I didn't expect this to be a long or, for that matter, particularly polite review. Keane seemed to have different plans for me though. I listened, I listened again, I did some research ("Wait, that's the name of a whole band? Not just the one guy?"), I made some phone calls, then I listened a third time. As much as I didn't want to be, I was pleasantly surprised.
Strangeland is the first we've heard from Keane in a couple of years. Judging by the standard they've set for themselves with their previous work, my guess is their existing fan-base won't be the least bit disappointed.
Tom Chaplin certainly knows what he's doing. It's rare to find a singer, who understands his own range and tone of voice well enough to write an entire album, free of songs that don't tax it in any way. I cannot cite an instance within the sixteen tracks (the deluxe version, you know) that featured a strained voice. In truth, Mr. Chaplin is one of the few singers that would give a novice the impression that this whole "singing" business is not that difficult.
Richard Hughes, the proverbial banger of the pots and pans, impressed me in such a way that I did not expect to be applicable. So carefully measured was his timing and finesse with his drum kit that, until I began reading background on the band, I simply assumed he was a drum machine. And though it's true, many musicians frown upon a drummer that can be described as "soul-less" or "inorganic". I must dare to speculate that this album was not written for vicious and critical musicians, but for loving and accepting fans. I might also ad that because Hughes matches his style so perfectly with the sound this band creates, it isn't a stretch to say he has successfully negated one of the cardinal rules of musicianship - play with soul.
As I have come to understand it, Keane has made a name for itself as one of the few rock bands on the planet that completely ignores the idea of any sort of guitar. There are many frustrated shred-heads out there would not be able to accept this as anything short of an unforgiveable sin. They would rush out to purchase a copy of Strangeland simply to desecrate the object then speak of the matter no more. If anyone mentioned this to Tim Rice-Oxley, however, it would not surprise me to see him respond with a blank stare followed by a fit of laughter.
Timothy seems to have written his own formula for the correct amount of tracks that go into a song. On Strangeland, even more-so than on Keane's previous efforts, Rice-Oxley's ability to take songs like "You Are Young," "Silenced By The Night," and "In Your Own Time," and create soaring dynamic highs with synth and string tracks is impressive. It's a not-so-subtle complimenting counter-point to the heartfelt, intimate piano tracks he delivers on songs like "Sea Fog" and "Watch How You Go." This musician has done a rare and commendable thing with the sounds of his keys, and deserves to be noted for it. Though you'll hear no terrifyingly complex jazz or rock melody runs from Tim, I might go as far as to borrow Derek Sherinians' title, Keeper of the Keys, and bestow it upon Mr. Rice-Oxley, noting that the future of the piano in modern rock will always be bright because of him.
The only noteworthy short-coming in this band dynamic is the bassist, Jesse Quin. I cannot take the liberty of criticizing his playing, because after listening to Strangeland three times, I still haven't heard it. At times, I really have to stop and wonder if he actually played on the album at all. To be fair, playing with a good pianist is one of the biggest problems a bassist can have, simply because the keys will invade the low end, and almost certainly be louder and clearer than any stringed bass instrument. I humbly suggest that Mr. Quin take up the tuba if he wishes to be heard.
If you're reading this and thinking to yourself, "I have no idea who these fools are. Should I listen to them or not?" that really depends on whether or not you like U2 or Train. Though I can't in good conscience call Tom Chaplin a comparable lyricist to Bono or Patrick Monahan, I would be a fool not to draw the comparison. If this kind of sound is your poison of choice, it isn't a stretch to imagine Strangeland becoming a staple of your musical library. If you've got broader taste, it'll be the kind of thing you admit to liking in polite company, and listen to when you can't decide what you're in the mood to listen to. Its pleasant driving music and I've certainly made the decision to make space on my iPhone to keep this album around, at least for a little while.
Listen to tracks like "Silenced by the Night," "Sovereign Light Cafe," "Strangeland," and my personal favorite, "Sea Fog", to get a feel for whether or not you're going to want to listen to the rest of the album. Personally, I'd recommend it to anyone looking for something to use as ambient music at a subdued social occasion, or something to play while cleaning, driving, or working. It isn't head-banging music. It isn't hard-rocking, and isn't masterfully composed classical or jazz content that makes you sit and concentrate on it. It is, however, thoroughly pleasant music, and worth giving a change if it fits your bill.