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Small Wonder

Increasingly, modern rock seems to be about musical and lyrical overstatement. Perhaps this is because bands are trying to transcend the music’s numbing anonymity, or maybe they’re hoping to usher in rock’s ever-elusive “next big thing.” But whatever the case—be it U2’s latest attempt to prove that they were electronica before electronica was cool, or the Smashing Pumpkins’ infinitely ambitious double-CD—more and more contemporary bands are portending much while saying precious little. And it’s only likely to get worse. With the new millennium looming like a cultural Rorschach, the pop-music world could be in for the worst rash of pretentious, secondhand significance since Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, and King Crimson held court in the early 1970s.

By the year 2001, performers who express themselves with modesty and restraint won’t just be refreshing—fans and critics alike will hail them as visionaries. If that’s the case, then unassuming pop-rocker John Keaney has a leg up on the competition. The former leader of the NYC alt-rock band the Spelvins now lives in Nashville, where he recorded Space-Age Wax Museum, his recently released solo debut on Hong Kong Records. Modest in the best sense, Keaney’s collection of acutely observed miniatures would make Kinks frontman Ray Davies proud.

Keaney may not long for Davies’ bygone village greens and afternoon teas, but when, on his album’s opening song, he personifies the fear and decay that choke Los Angeles, he too expresses his dis-ease with modern society. In fact, within the span of three short minutes, Keaney not only exposes LA’s insidious underside, he also proves himself a spiritual descendant of novelists Raymond Chandler and Nathaniel West.

Elsewhere, Keaney presents his self-contained universes less to engage in social commentary than to shed light on the darker recesses of the heart. The thrift-shop mentality of the protagonist in “Second-Hand Man,” for example, conveys how this man cheapens his relationship with his lover, while in “Run Home to Daddy,” the cold, heartless streets of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury mirror a young dilettante’s shallow self-absorption.

Keaney wraps his disquieting lyrical themes in melodies and vocal harmonies that are at once angular and lovely. Far removed from the riff-based arrangements and angst-ridden braying of most modern rock, Keaney’s music draws inspiration instead from Britain’s post-punk new wave. “Dark Endeavors” evokes the pastoral pop of XTC, “Second Hand Man” and “Reconstruct Me” the jittery faux-soul of Squeeze, “With You” the pub-rock balladry of Nick Lowe, and “Surf on the Shore” and “Run Home to Daddy” the brooding and baroque stripes of pop chameleon Elvis Costello.

This isn’t to suggest that Keaney’s music is derivative so much as to place it in a context—one that, like his lyrics, extends back to the music-hall-influenced pop-rock of the late-’60s Kinks. Indeed, the wistful yet majestic “Ragged End,” which closes Space-Age Wax Museum, is one of a handful of pop songs that actually merits comparison to the Kinks’ untouchable “Waterloo Sunset.”

R.S. Field’s imaginative production has much to do with the fresh sound of Keaney’s debut. From the high-string guitar that heightens the eeriness of “Surf on the Shore” to the doleful melodica of “Lost Again,” Field imprints nearly every song with his indelible stamp. Field also assembled the album’s stellar cast of musicians—“roots rock action figures,” he calls them: guitarists Kenny Vaughan and David Grissom, multi-instrumentalists Jim Hoke (Emmylou Harris, NRBQ) and Steve Conn (Bonnie Raitt, Sonny Landreth), Los Straitjackets drummer Jimmy Lester, and featured vocalist Carmella Ramsey. Along with Field’s production, Ramsey’s harmonies and vocal improvisation make for some of the record’s sweetest musical revelations.

Perhaps it’s because they don’t call attention to themselves that unassuming pop epiphanies like Space-Age Wax Museum go unheard amid the hundreds of records released in this town each year. And while that isn’t likely to change anytime soon, fans of incisive, well-crafted music would do well to give Keaney a listen: The pleasures of his debut will endure long after the self-important statements of other performers have faded from memory.

John Keaney and his band play 12th & Porter Tuesday, April 29.

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