CD Review of Under the Iron Sea by Keane

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Under the Iron Sea
starstarstarstarno star Label: Interscope
Released: 2006
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ALSO: Check out Will Harris' interview with Keane drummer Richard Hughes!

I’ll just come out and say it: I find the Stateside success of Sussex’s sensitive minstrels Keane quite baffling. After all, A-ha has been making this kind of impeccably crafted, perky pop for years – it is no coincidence that A-ha was one of the first bands to which Keane drew comparison – yet A-ha can’t even get their albums released in the US these days, never mind played on American radio. But Keane, by either the grace of God or a well-placed payola check, blew up in the States. Even modern rock radio, which typically eschews the more delicate side of indie pop, took to Keane. Heck, modern rock radio continues to play the band after it was no longer cool to do so, i.e. when the Mix stations started playing them.

So despite some long odds, they have our attention. Does Under the Iron Sea, the follow-up to 2004’s Hopes and Fears, keep our attention? Oh yes, it does. Darker, odder, and ultimately better than their debut, Under the Iron Sea shows Keane spicing things up, while simultaneously plumbing the depths of their souls.

In fact, on the surface it appears that Keane has been trading mash notes with prog-pop trio Muse. Both the hidden instrumental title track (it’s the creepy back half of “Put It Behind You”) and the spooky-but-spectacular leadoff track “Atlantic” sound like ideas that Muse would have put to paper sooner or later. (Muse, in return, knicked a huge chunk of “Everybody’s Changing” for a track on their new record, but we’ll get to that when Muse’s album Black Holes and Revelations comes out next month.) Then there’s first single “Is It Any Wonder?”, which goes completely Achtung Baby batty with a distorted wah-wah applied to pianist and chief songwriter Tim Rice-Oxley’s keys. The first half of “Put It Behind You” (the part that’s the actually song, that is, as opposed to the hidden “Iron Sea” instrumental) has a certain amount of swagger as well. Who’d a thunk it: Keane can actually let it rip when the mood hits them.

But don’t let that mislead you into thinking they have forgotten their bread and butter. There are ballads a-plenty on Iron Sea, the best of which is “A Bad Dream,” which has one of those infinitely simple melodies where the music moves around the vocal, not the other way around. When singer Tom Chaplin observes, “Guess I’m not the fighting kind,” it goes down as one of the more rhetorical statements in rock history. “Nothing in My Way” and “Hamburg Song” are more along the lines of Hopes and Fears-type chillage, though I’m guessing the Stone Roses will take issue with Chaplin’s declaration in the latter that “I don’t want to be adored.” Then there’s “Broken Toy,” a haunted waltz of sorts that further explores this new dark side to Keane’s music. This is not your older sister’s Keane, the bashful romantics that wanted to go somewhere only we know. Indeed, in “Atlantic,” Chaplin confesses “I don’t want to be old and sleep alone.” Geez, talk about hopes and fears, yet the lyric fits the song like a glove, and the overall shift in dynamic suits the band well.

With any luck, the Coldplay comparisons end here for Keane. Coldplay would never dream of writing a song like “Leaving So Soon?”, and even if they did, Chris Martin sure as hell couldn’t sing it. Keane are their own animal, and thank heaven for that. Under the Iron Sea shows a band that is finally getting a sense of what they’re capable of doing, and it’s a fascinating thing to behold.

~David Medsker