local dude Pat Keen folds his jazz background into short, lo-fi pop songs
Eau Claire native Pat Keen’s debut solo album, Leaving, is 10 tracks long, but the entire album clocks in at just over 20 minutes. Each song in the collection functions as a punchy snapshot, and once Keen has said everything he needs to say, the track ends.
Each is a sugary lo-fi gem – and while none of them are longer than two and a half minutes, they contain masterful intricacies, unique structures, and moments of loose brilliance. And then they end. And it’s great.
It’s easy to make an acoustic singer-songwriter album of short pop songs, but Keen dismantles that formula on Leaving. Throughout the entire album, he succeeds in subverting the dude-with-acoustic-guitar expectation. Instead of the same four chords that appear in basically every pop song, Keen uses chords you’ve never even heard before. Most pop songs are in a straight 4/4 time signature, but some of Keen’s don’t even have a time signature. There are twists and turns all over the place on the album.
You can chalk that up to Keen’s formal jazz training both here in his hometown, and on the East Coast where he nabbed a degree in jazz studies from the New England Conservatory – a first-rate, internationally recognized music school in Boston. A bulk of his training was in his passion, free jazz, a subgenre of jazz defined by pure improvisation and devoid of traditional musical structure. Keen’s been making free jazz with friends since his Eau Claire days, and he’s been taken by it ever since. It’s no wonder his album has such a unique vibe. Subconsciously or not, Keen is filtering his songs through that free jazz lens, and they’re all the better for it.
“I like the rhythm of (free jazz),” he said. “A lot of free jazz doesn’t have a time signature, but you can feel a rubato sense of time and a pulse.”
During his time out in Boston, Keen thrust himself into the city’s DIY scene, making sounds with his band Cult & Leper. It was in that scene where he met Chris Weisman, the bassist for Happy Birthday and a prolific solo artist in his own right. After graduating, Keen started taking lessons from Weisman, the goal being to open Keen up to more songwriting.
“When we first went in, I told him I had started writing some songs and I was completely obsessed with his music. He was like, ‘I don’t want to hear any of your music right now,’ ” Keen laughed. “He didn’t want it to be a songwriting workshop. That’s what I thought it would be, and now I’m glad that it wasn’t.”
Keen clearly takes nods from Weisman’s extensive discography of trippy acoustic songs, but his work is also markedly different.
Keen’s lyrics are compelling in their triviality. Sometimes, there are glimmers of meaning and cutting lines that are etched with specificity, but most of the time the lyrics function as a vibe more than anything. Sometimes he uses a lot of words to not say much, but by the end of a phrase, you totally get it.
On “What We Like and Who We Are” – one of Leaving’s catchier numbers – Keen goes: “I do not wanna go home now because if you / tell me just for one day that you lead my life your way / then tonight we’ll forget about what we like and who we are.” That line bubbles in obscurity, but after it passes, there’s a feeling of something cathartic and definitive.
Keen admits he’s not a dynamite vocalist or a virtuoso on the guitar, but honestly, that doesn’t matter in this package. He’s a special songwriter, the type that would rather put out several albums a year of short and sweet tracks – all recorded on his four-track – than pore over one song for months at a time.
He’s poised for prolific, excellent lo-fi output, and if you don’t believe me, he’s already nearly finished with another full album.
Pat Keen’s debut album Leaving is available digitally at patkeen.bandcamp.com, on tape through Absolute Paradise, and on CD via Lungbasket Records.