Perhaps one of the few dark spots in Queen’s catalogue was 1982’s misguided Hot Space, a disco inferno that abandoned most of what made them excellent in favor of cashing in on the synthesized sounds of the day. There were still redeeming spots to the disc, but when it comes to doing a massive switch-up of your sound, it seems that doing it organically rather than all of a sudden swapping out Brian May’s guitar for a Moog would be the more effective way to go.
Besides hailing from Britain and having similar sounding names, Keane faced this sort of dilemma with their last release, 2008’s Perfect Symmetry. With formerly bland pop artists like Coldplay suddenly tweaking their sounds and smashing up the charts, Keane traded in their piano-based, lushly unfolding ballads for an ‘80s-esque synth pop vibe. And interestingly, after years of eschewing guitars, the band (Tim Rice-Oxley, Tom Chaplin, and Richard Hughes) transformed themselves into a different sort of entity than the band behind “Somewhere Only We Know.”
Of course, every group grows and evolves. And while Perfect Symmetry was likeable in a lot of ways, it just didn’t say Keane to me. Turns out their latest move, the Night Train EP, is both a return-to-form and a more effective exploration of what makes Keane enjoyable: soaring harmonies, prettily brooding instrumentation, Tom Chaplin’s anchoring vocals.
Stripped from the glitzy overproduction and distracting synths of Perfect Symmetry, material like opener “Back In Time” or lead single “Stop For A Minute” (featuring Somali/Canadian rapper K’Naan) is punchy and catchy. “Stop For A Minute” in particular is a highlight, smoothly melding K’Naan’s part with Chaplin’s melodious vocals. It’s not in-your-face or cheesy, as I’ve feared from Keane sometimes; this is simply subtly enjoyable pop with a solid heart to it.
Meanwhile, K’Naan reappears on “Looking Back,” which swipes the theme music from Rocky Balboa, adding a cool pumped-up feel to the collaboration. I wouldn’t really expect Keane plus hip-hop to flow so smoothly, but it does.
What Night Train does best is in the nuances, trading in a lot of the group’s penchant for slickness in favor of some quietly reflective lyrics and less layers to their instrumentation. “Clear Skies,” for example, is a hypnotic mix of hand claps and sparkling trickles of guitars and xylophones, letting the vocals just wash over you. The only slow spot on this EP is “Ishin Denshin (You’ve Got To Help Yourself)”, which, odd title aside and beginning with the sound of dial-up Internet, is endlessly repetitive, so much so that I can barely get through a full listen of it.
Overall, though, it’s good to hear Keane having fun with their sound and at ease. After the tenseness of 2006’s Under The Iron Sea, during which the band nearly broke up (although quite honestly, I love that album), and the slickness of Perfect Symmetry, this disc is a reminder that Keane can still do it up right.