Most of the tunes on Matt Keating’s new album, This Perfect Crime, are as dark as film noir. Still, hidden among these spare, mostly sunless songs, is a rare, upbeat ballad, sticking out like a diamond in a bag of coal. It is called, appropriately enough, “I’m Lucky.” And it seems, in its quiet, acoustic way, to illustrate Keating’s life. Sure, he has other numbers like, “Hell If I Know” and “Sullivan Street,” which sound like they could’ve been written by a pessimistic pulp writer like Jim Thompson, if he’d been musically-minded. But, when Keating isn’t speaking in the voice of the lost souls in his native New York City, ‘Lucky,’ says as much about this veteran singer-songwriter as you really need to know.
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Just how lucky is he? Well, how often do you find a piano on the street, in near-perfect shape? Just when you’ve been needing one? This guy did.
“I was near my building not too long ago,” says Keating, whose discs for the Alias label have made him a cult favorite, “and I saw this piano. I’d actually been dreaming that I needed one. It’s not unusual to see them discarded in New York. But throwaway pianos are usually in awful shape. This turned out to be made by Sohmer, a legendary company that isn’t even in business anymore.These homeless guys were trying to push it away. Instead, I offered them some money and they helped me get it into my apartment. I had it tuned and got a few of the hammers replaced and it was, like, brand new. I wrote a bunch of the songs for my new record on it. Then, I recorded most of them on guitar.”
And the piano remains
You just need to hear “The Only Thing,” which has the stark, unsettling quality of something from Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, to understand that Keating’s finding that woebegotten keyboard was good luck. Both for him and his listeners. ‘Crime’ also features perfect Power Pop like “Mothers Day”and fingerpicked, folkish gems like “When They’ve Thrown You Out” a bleak, gorgeous portrait of a troubled girl who was “Born on the buckle of the Bible Belt.” In other words, if the craft of songwriting, much less eclecticism, has been devalued of late, somebody forgot to tell Keating.
Still, he’s practical. In addition to making his own records, he’s accomplished enough a keyboardist to play on other peoples’ gigs. Which not only helps to pay the rent, but allows him to see the world. In fact, when we spoke, Keating had only recently returned from two weeks in Japan with the estimable Garland Jeffreys, Lou Reed’s old college roommate and a Rock legend himself. Keating says it was a great job and learning lesson playing with the guy who wrote “Wild In The Streets.”
There was just one little problem.
“For some reason, Garland couldn’t quite seem to remember my name,” Keating says, suppressing a chuckle. “One night, when he introduced the band, he came to me and said, ‘And on keyboards….Matthew Sweet!’ Not a bad person to be compared to, but….”
But let’s get back to the record that’s so criminally good. Keating is justifiably proud of it. Still, he’s understandably cautious. The kid who grew up in Boston, but moved around a lot in his youth- “You could say I was peripatetic” – is also a pragmatist. Chalk it up to years in a record business whose infrastructure he’s seen flourish, only to crumble. He even has a teenage daughter who is showing signs of the family talent in the area of music. He says, “I suggested to her that since she also has a gift for acting, that she try to diversify as much as possible. It’s really hard for young people to get a foothold in the business now. I suggested she think about marketing a fragrance, too.” Keating says, joking. I think
As for his own new disc, the practical New Yorker says he’s going to begin by being cautious about its release.
“I’ll probably just put out 200 albums to start. Hopefully, they all sell. Then, I’ll decide what to do about the second pressing. You’ll notice I still refer to them as ‘albums.’ That should give you an idea of how old-school I am.”
If by old-school Matt Keating means he pays attention to song structure, good hooks and dark, meaningful lyrics, then he’s right on the money. And after a couple of listens, you will come to at least one solid conclusion about the ‘album.’ Keating better be readying a second pressing. Those first two hundred copies of This Perfect Crime are bound to disappear fast. So quickly, in fact, one might say, vis a vis the title? It may just seem like they were stolen.
Matt Keating’s new album This Perfect Crime will be released on February 17, coinciding with a gig/release party at Manhattan’s Rockwood Music Hall. For more info go to www.mattkeating.com