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Wednesday, May 12, 2004  
Hopes & Fears
Up on Stylus already; thanks to SLSK for allowing me to rip the shit out of it off the internet without ever having to sully my hands by actually touching a real copy.

Keane are The Next Big Thing, at least in the UK. There’s too much money banking on them for this not to be the case. Have a quick scout round ebay and see how much their early vinyl singles are going for. And if that doesn’t convince you then just listen to them shimmer and soar; they’re destined for greatness, insofar as greatness means stadiums. If you stripped the heavy metal away from The Bends, completely removed the guitars and (occasional) sense of urgent dynamics from Coldplay, took away Travis’ harmonies and Scottish pop sensibility… then you might end up with Keane. Welcome to the wounded world of the spurned choirboy.

Retro used to be a dirty word but it’s not one that can be levelled at today’s teeming school of MOR stockbroker rockers. Keane’s record company have made sure that Hopes & Fears sounds utterly contemporary, laden as it is with keyboard swoops, preening strings, plenty of reverb on the drums and vocals from time to time, and not a trace of character or history; we can blame David Gray, perhaps, for making skittering programmed beats and computers sound as bland as vintage mixing desks and Sunburst Les Pauls. No, Keane are not retro. They are so utterly, desperately modern, so thoroughly now, that over the course of the next few months their momentum and presence will become irresistible. Unavoidable.

Piano, drums, vocals and lavish production flourishes are Keane’s stock in trade, and they seem to have nothing in common whatsoever with their namesake, Manchester United’s hardman midfield general Roy. The irony is almost delicious; Keane are the kind of public school prawn sandwichers taking up oxygen at Old Trafford that Roy so objects to. Seemingly all three of them are called Tom. The nearest thing to controversy surrounding Keane is the rumour that they’ve been manufactured in the same way as Westlife or Girls Aloud, assembled via a lengthy process of auditions and then pushed in definite creative directions by sinister svengalis in expensive Italian suits. The truth is even more disheartening; Keane formed as naturally as any other band (even *gasp* Busted, who rose from an ad in NME or Melody Maker, lest we forget—a fact that would doubtless terrify the Busted-haters on Keane’s messageboard, who consider the band the antithesis of their own heroes). They’re not manipulated or manufactured or target marketed any more than anyone else; they just want to be BIG, MASSIVE even, and that kind of humongous success doesn’t come from trawling toilet circuits—it comes from radio saturation, expensive videos and half-familiar melodies about the kind of vague heartbreak that anybody and (almost) everybody can relate to. And so guitar and bass are eschewed, David Sneddon was supported, meetings were had and directions were decided upon. Singing Tom (big lad, baby face) was encouraged to move away from his full-throated vocals towards a more falsetto-focused delivery. Current single “Everybody’s Changing” (best melody on the album; I know this because at first I thought it must be a cover version, it seemed so familiar) sits at number 4 in the charts. If Hopes & Fears doesn’t make number one a lot of people will be disappointed.

The songs are pretty much all identikit. “Somewhere Only We Know”, the second single, is the weakest and sappiest “me and you against the world babe” song in a long time. Cymbals are tapped, pianos are played, melodies rise and fall. “Can’t Stop Now” starts with a bang and becomes a forgettable show tune (“I’m loneeeeeeeeeeeeely and I’m too tired to talk”). “Untitled 1” is almost dance. The title of “Bedshaped” would suggest something lustful and psychotic, dallying with sexual obsession, but it is, in fact, another piano-led ballad about being alone and lonely too; the climax sees expensive-sounding electronics replacing guitar solos, but these nice production flourishes are just that; flourishes. Never is there any sense that ‘the studio’ was considered as an instrument during the composition or arrangement of these songs (for a band who do that with aplomb check out The Earlies). Neither do they ever rock or betray any sense of the unpalatable or dangerous. The continual sense of aesthetic, structural and emotional conservatism constantly makes the listener feel short-changed, Singing Tom persistently pleading his own honesty and kindness and suitability and weakness. Early demos were laden with enough overblown guitar and pompous dramatics to make Rufus Wainwright blush, but these potentially unsightly edges have been smoothed away. The result is quite nice to tap your fingers and hum along too.

Eternal cymbal decay to fade.


5/12/2004 09:15:00 am


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Nick Southall is Contributing Editor at Stylus Magazine and occasionally writes for various other places on and offline. You can contact him by emailing auspiciousfishNO@SPAMgmail.com

All material © Nick Southall, 2003/2004/2005