Musings on music delivered when I dig myself out.

Keane -- Hopes and Dreams
Interscope; 2004

Originally Keane was slated to be a group not too far off the beaten path, using drums, guitars, piano, and vocals to do their thing. When the guitar player one day up and quit the band, the remaining members decided to soldier on as a three piece. But don't think of these English boys as victimized by circumstance. As it turns out, people like them without guitars and all the rocking out nonsense; so much so that they've blown up the charts in the UK and started to make waves in the U.S. Their debut full-length album, Hopes and Fears, is their vehicle to being either the next Coldplay or, god forbid, the next Ash.

Keane waste no time in proving that their untraditionally small line up is no hindrance and start off the album with the strong "Somewhere Only We Know." After 20 seconds of stately piano and drums, singer Tom Champlin makes a quiet entrance, only to open the proverbial flood gates and belt out his lyrics shortly after. His voice is not unlike the mighty pipes of Queen vocalist Freddy Mercury, with the notable exclusion of tights and Mercury's flair for the dramatic. Champlin possesses an incredibly strong falsetto, one capable of dancing lightly over the notes (like on "Sunshine") or firing them out as if from a canon (see "This Is the Last Time"). For the majority of the album his voice takes center stage, majestically soaring over the group's Britpop instrumentals.

This isn't to say, though, that Champlin overwhelms the rest of the group. One of the beneficial things of having such a spare arrangement is that all members have room to present their wares. Pianist Tim Rice-Oxley tickles the ivory with an aggressive intensity, supported by the steady beat-keeping of drummer Richard Hughes. A few songs are touched by small flourishes of electronics or bass guitar, further fleshing out the tunes.

Champlin's lyrics seem to be the plain whipped cream topping on this sweet desert. They're not particularly ambitious in rhyme or topic, preferring to be ambiguous enough that they can fit nearly any listener's story. On "Bend and Break," Champlin sings "If only I don't bend and break / I'll meet you on the other side / I'll meet you in the light," an uplifting take on life's difficulties. His gentle jibes at an ex on "We Might As Well Be Strangers" are comforting in the occasion of a break up or fight among friends. None of the lyrics come off particularly personal, but their openness to interpretation could easily allow listeners to latch on to them like life-preservers.

Another of Keane's downfalls is their incredibly by-the-books songwriting. Each song is relatively basic, providing few twists and turns from their otherwise straight-forward course. Many of the songs have the exact same sort of ending, finishing up with a big chord and twinkling a little bit, like something out of a piano bar. Keane also end up repeating one of their big melodies and some of the lyrics of "Bend and Break" on "Untitled 1," which seems fairly unnecessary of a band able to write such good hooks.

Do Keane have the potential to succeed in America? Certainly; they've got decent chops musically and a singer with the throat of a British angel, not to mention that Hopes and Dreams packs enough hooks to out do a bait and tackle shop. Their sound is soft enough to provide torch songs for your average coffee drinker at Borders, but with enough heft for that sensitive emo girl in your literature class to dig them too. It's also to their credit that their weaknesses are relatively small and harmless enough that most listeners won't even notice. I guess all that's left to do is see how keen America is on accepting another British band into their hearts and CD binders.

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