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Black & White Town (EH Records)

SOME THING WE KNOW about Mr P. Keyes after, now, six albums.

The detail, right down to the most minor element, has always been just so and has not deserted him. “You rode the 343 past the working men/On the asphalt vein through Kensington … You wore your best blue dress/The one your mum lay-byed at Best & Less”; “And the TV cameras they make you so nervous/Free soup on Tuesdays at the healing service”; “I tied a long rope around the small dog’s neck/I walked it up the hill and I cashed a counter cheque".

The evocation of an area that is not just a tiny fraction of the city, but one barely noticed or thought about as soon as you move a few clicks in any direction, doesn’t just ring true, it is true. “The papers send photographers/The camera’s flash and shutter/TV film the houses/And broken bottles in the gutter”; “As cars crawled up the skinny street/The postman wiped his face in the summer heat/And heard the Maronite bells ringing”; “The morning sun shone on the tracks/Where the old red rattlers shook like Sensurround/But Sid and Billy felt nothing at all/Inside the cell of a black-and-white town”.

You wouldn’t necessarily want to live there – the romanticism of the street always feels a lot more romantic in the rearview as we head back to more prosaic suburbia – and you might briefly feel superior for not being one of the scarred or cracked characters he describes, but you can’t sustain disdain or distance because you begin to know them, and maybe even pretend you understand some of the choices and some of the results. Which brings us to …

Some things we understand about Mr P. Keyes: he is the anti-David Byrne. Or at least the antithesis of Byrne’s character in the early Talking Heads song, No Compassion, the one who sang “Compassion is a virtue but I don’t have the time/So many people have their problems/I’m not interested in their problems.”

Beyond the cliché of “not judging them”, indeed beyond the cliches that are almost inevitable because these tales have always and will always be like this, Keyes tells all of these stories with a strong seam of insightful empathy, not as some retailer of povo porn: he really is “interested in their problems”. That is in part because he is “of them”, pretty much having spent all of his life in and around the same streets and landmarks and memories with (or as) people just like these, someone whose strongest language is only ever directed at the disconnected decision-makers who never live nearby. But there is also the fact you just know that he would be a pretty decent bloke, which is no small thing when you are listening to a storyteller who keeps finding stories that resonate and relate.

And Lord knows right now, as every night we see endless footage of lost, bewildered, damaged kids in a Gaza hospital and the faces of shattered survivors, or get more details of the horrors inflicted on kibbutznik and the haunted eyes of families of those taken hostage, there is a marked shortage of empathy and compassion from people telling us official stories and pushing deplorable options from safe distances.

Now, here’s something we can forget about Mr P. Keyes. Yes, things can get dark in these songs, yes you most often will find him at shows on a stool with acoustic guitar spinning these tales, and yes his is a lyric-driven oeuvre. But those Paul Kelly narratives, those Mink DeVille underbelly connections, those Bruce Springsteen Matamoros/Jersey Shore/Nebraska mean streets that are the usual critical reference points when talking about Keyes, aren’t only quiet and respectable.

Produced by a certified Springsteen fanatic in Michael Carpenter – who plays quite a few of the instruments, alongside guitarist Edmond Kairouz, Jed Zarb on sax and Gabi Blisset on “strings” – Black & White Town can still rock out and isn’t afraid of throwing in the hooks.

Down On My Street emerges from a finger-snapping, thin-moustachioed hustler’s swing into a rumble in the back alley punchiness, guitars overdriven and toms whacked, and then drops back into the cool; while Abandoned Car Problems abandons cool for a kind of Gene Pitney-meets-Little Steven swooning moment. Walking At Midnight Through The Lot channels almost euphoric Spector stomp that is constantly melting into a glorious Beach Boys sugariness, while Cracker Night is one Hammond organ away from a 1965 Bob Johnston production.

Then Elevator Down throws its guitars more widescreen with a front bar piano coming in and out to measure time, and everything feels like it’s going to turn for the open highway any second, and Streets Of A Black & White Town steps between carnival fare and the big back bar, three beers in and rising.

This may be Perry Keyes last album; it may not be – he has hinted as much, though time and money may be overridden by enough of us after all – but in any case, it is one of his best. That much I know.


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