Still Keen On Keane?
Initially plagued with having been labeled a Coldplay offshoot, Keane’s current incarnation proves that it is anything but that – not that they ever were in the first place. Its new EP, “Night Train,” which is Keane’s fourth number one in the United Kingdom, is a meandering journey full of sharp twists and turns that deviates from the middle of the road piano, drums and vocals setup originally heard on its debut album, “Hopes and Fears.”
Named after the band’s favorite mode of transportation between gigs on its last tour, “Night Train” shows Keane in a new light that extends the New Wave-influenced synth pop, which emerged on its previous album “Perfect Symmetry.” There is some promising growth on display here, but at the same time, it’s not perfectly representative of Keane.
Featuring guest appearances from Canadian-Somali rapper K’Naan and Japanese funk singer Tigarah, Keane uses “Night Train” as an opportunity to experiment with other genres, often morphing into a completely new identity that will leave some scratching their heads.
Right off the bat, the brief introduction of “House Lights” immediately signals that Keane has gone a bit off the rails. An industrial beat fitting for a trance record starts it off before drawn out, futuristic-sounding synths creep in. The sound is changing and things certainly don’t feel the same.
After the spooky vibrato synths of “Back in Time” comes the standout track, “Stop for a Minute.” One of the few experiments gone right, “Stop for a Minute” is driven by a steady hip-hop influenced hand clap snare beat, fuzzy bass and vocalist Tom Chaplin’s “oh-oh’s.” K’Naan’s guest vocals lend a soulful flair while also offering some smooth flow laced with swagger. Primary songwriter, Tim Rice-Oxley, provides the proper balance of good old black and white keys and a plethora of electronic effects to buoy K’Naan’s rapping.
Despite the fact that “Stop for a Minute” seamlessly integrates K’Naan’s influence with the signature Keane style, Keane fails to live up to this standard for much of the EP. For instance, “Clear Skies” can’t muster the energy to hold its own for the duration of the song, frolicking along with an unimaginative acoustic guitar and little change in dynamics. Plus, the xylophone tinkering is entirely out of place, giving off a ’60s lounge vibe.
On “Looking Back,” the Rocky theme song bursts out immediately, horns and all. Although it’s unclear whether this was intentional, it represents a low point for Keane, appearing to concede that it ran out of creative juices. Sure, this might be an EP, but Keane can certainly do better than sampling a boxing anthem. At least K’Naan’s rapping partially salvages the track from complete doom.
Meanwhile, “Ishin Denshin” begins with a thumpy electronic bounce á la New Order’s “Blue Monday” before leading into Tigarah’s soft childlike vocals sung in Japanese. This uber happy-sounding tune, laden with a tinny keyboard twang, is better suited as a backdrop for a children’s TV show as Chaplin exclaims, “See how the world goes ‘round / And you’ll help someone else.” Especially with Tigarah’s vocals, it’s too cheery for a Keane song to say the least.
However, the classic Keane comes to life on the closing ballad, “My Shadow.” Rice-Oxley’s simple yet plaintive piano in the vein of “Bedshaped” and an expansive vocal performance from Chaplin show that Keane can still rekindle some of the old magic that made early hits like “Somewhere Only We Know” and “Nothing in My Way” connect to audiences. Ending on a somber note, Chaplin woefully sings, “It only takes a spark to tear the world apart / These little things that make it all begin.” It’s raw and down to earth, but fully endearing.
Are Keane’s best days behind it? Very likely. The unadulterated piano rock that made “Hopes and Fears” a monster hit has nearly faded into obscurity at this point. As an EP, “Night Train” shouldn’t be taken too seriously – a mere resting point before Keane finishes its next proper studio album. It’s like a detour stop before you reach your final destination. There might be a couple pleasant surprises, but it can be underwhelming as well. Hopefully the final destination is more satisfying.