Without the budget to record a new album, Tommy Keene has been dining out on his back catalog. First came a collection of demos, Sleeping on a Rollercoaster, released last year on Matador; now arrives The Real Underground, from California indie-label Alias, combining never- released material with such acclaimed early tracks as “Places That Are Gone” and “Back to Zero Now” (but nothing from Keene’s first solo outing, the eight-song Strange Alliance).
For those who already possess those songs, Underground may not be an essential purchase, but it’s worth noting that a lot of people don’t have them, and that these days they’re not so easy to acquire. Released in small quantities in the early ’80s, Keene’s early solo recordings have passed into the dark, forbidding collector’s-item zone.
The 23-song, 75-minute Underground partially corrects that, and the songs that announced Keene as a Next Big Thing (before his problematic Geffen stint intervened) sound as ringingly infectious as ever. Rick Gershon’s liner notes try to establish the Bethesda folk-rocker’s importance by citing Peter Buck, Paul Westerberg, Matthew Sweet, and Fugazi as fans, but songs like “When the Truth Is Found” don’t need celebrity endorsements.
This much Keene may be a little too much plangent wistfulness for all but the truly faithful, but Underground breaks up the jangling rue with such covers as Alex Chilton’s “Hey! Little Child” (previously released), the Who’s “Tattoo,” and the Flamin’ Groovies’ “Shake Some Action” (new, although not unexpected to those familiar with Keene’s live encores).
There’s also a surprisingly emphatic rocker, “That You Do,” that’s apparently a leftover from the Places That Are Gone era, and the previously unheard title songs from both this collection and the Matador one. The Alias compilation is a one-shot deal, but such previously submerged material as “Something Got a Hold of Me,” “Hey Man,” and “Something to Rave About” just might be attention-getting enough to get Keene another major-label deal-from-hell.