Review: Johnny Davis, Q May 2004
Ever since Badfinger had the temerity not to become the New Beatles, the history of rock has been littered with nearly-rans squashed by the weight of expectation. In the realm of indie rock, where the disparity between lavish plaudits and actual results is the greatest of all, things remain particularly at odds, with the epithet This Band Will Change Your Life applied to an interchangeable league table of scruffy herberts on a weekly basis.
This state of affairs got particularly bad in the Britpop years when indie music suddenly had a shot at the big time. And so it transpired that Gene weren’t actually The New Smiths. Embrace weren’t The New Verve and Mansun emphatically weren’t The New Radiohead. While much of this mis-labelling is due to writers’ wishful thinking and cloth ears, it’s also down to a startling absence of what we might call ‘star quality’ in any of those poor souls hyped to the rafters.
We might like to imagine that it’s the music that matters, that good songs will win out whatever a band’s pin-up potential or whatever they give good quote. Unfortunately, this is nonsense. If it were just about the songs, then Denim would be playing Knebworth. And nobody wants that. Least of all them.
To pick an example not entirely random, let’s consider Coldplay. Coldplay have always written superlative songs. But when they took to the stage at Glastonbury 2002 to unveil A Rush Of Blood To The Head, they also unveiled Coldplay v2.0. Gone was the weedy bloke in the cagoule staggering around a beach singing Yellow. Instead, The New Chris Martin was smart of haircut, buff of body and witty of quip. Even the bass player looked quite cool. They sounded like stars and looked ready to compete on a global stage.
By popular consensus, then, Keane are The New Coldplay. This analogy, at least, makes sense. Keane’s stock is wistful melancholia, their instrument of choice is the piano (they have no bass player or guitarist – presumably they’re down the job centre with the bassists from the White Stripes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Busted’s drummer), and their singer is a presentable posh lad who sings in falsetto. The fact they’ve appeared now is no accident. Although the band have actually been together since 1997 (Admittedly, some of this time they were still at school and not really trying), until last year the only contact they had with the music industry was an in-tray full of record company rejection letters. Then, in May, with A Rush Of Blood… mania at its peak, independent label Fierce Panda (also home to Coldplay’s first proper release, Brother and Sisters EP) put out a single, Everybody’s Changing, and things accelerated rapidly from there. This January Keane topped a BBC survey of critics and DJs who voted them the Most Promising Act of 2004. The hype and the expectation were there and in February a Top 3 place for Somewhere Only We Know, their first, hugely confident – and great – major label single, bore this out.
Elsewhere, things didn’t look quite so certain. Like Coldplay, the band – Tom Chaplin (vocals), Tim Rice-Oxley (piano) and Richard Hughes (drums) – have a background in public schools (Tonbridge in Kent in this case). Unlike Coldplay, they look like they’re still there. Chaplin, in particular, with his apple-cheeks and Boris Johnson hairdo might have dropped into band rehearsal in between having a wheeze on the hockey pitch and settling down to his Latin prep. Worse, Keane’s handful of interviews have found them trading in the sort of platitudes that would make Dido blush: ‘People are surprised when we turn up and they realise we just have a piano’, they revealed in one. ‘Even a month before it happened, we were, like, wouldn’t it be wonderful if one day we were on Jools Holland?’ said Chaplin in another.
But then Keane haven’t come to scare the horses. There’s no need for the nation to lock up their daughters. In fact, the nation’s daughters are most welcome at Keane gigs (the band have noted surprising numbers of females at their shows, putting this down to ‘an emotional quality girls can relate to’) Mums will love them, too. Their appeal is likely to be a record company marketing man’s pan-demographic dream; their songs will be as at home on Terry Wogan’s radio show as on Chris Moyle’s. A recent slot supporting Travis made perfect sense.
The two key weapons in Keane’s arsenal are Chaplin’s powerful, muscular voice and the band’s superb grasp of melody. Both are given terrific oomph by Mike ‘Spike’ Stent’s (U2, Madonna) stadium-friendly mixing (listen on headphones and the piano leaps from ear to ear, the percussion drives the songs urgently forward). The single Somewhere Only We Know opens the album and sets out their stall; these are songs of vague unease and sorrow, of looking for some way to transform the humdrum. It might not be precisely clear what Chaplin’s lyrics are about, but you know what he means. He does that personal-into-universal thing so well you can all but hear Brixton Academy hollering the choruses with him already. Along with Somewhere Only We Know, the message of Bend And Break and Bedshaped is ‘stick with me, we’ll get through this together’. As he sings on Bend And Break: ‘ If only I don’t bend and break/I’ll meet you on the other side/I’ll meet you in the light’. It’s like The Shawshank redemption: The Musical.
Keane have worked hard top overcome any restrictions to their sound. Vocals, drums and Rice –Oxley’s pounding piano are the foundations of all these songs, but the band keep things moving throughout the 12 tracks, mixing up light and shade. A bass does actually appear on a number of them (notably Sunshine, Bend And Break, Can’t Stop Now), while She Has No Time is drenched in mournful Yamaha effects. Elsewhere, Sunshine borrows the key change and what they used to call ‘indie dance’ beat of Robbie William’s Feel, the verses of Your Eyes Open recall the chiming minor chords of Boy-era U2 and Everybody’s Changing (different fro the fierce Panda version) bobs along on a sea of electronic bleeps and squiggles.
When they pick up the pace, the references reach further back: the sweet soft rock of Can’t Stop Now and This Is The Last Time is pure Air Supply, the latter building to such ambitious crescendo you wince, thinking Chaplin is never going to reach the note.
As a collection of songs, this is hugely impressive. As a debut album, its confidence is right up there with Definitely Maybe. They have, too, reclaimed the piano from the memory of Ben Folds, Myleen Klass and Hothouse Flowers and made it, yes, kind of cool again.
But can Keane become the New Coldplay? They certainly have the tunes, but time will tell if that’s enough.