- The Washington Times - Monday, June 19, 2006

Keane

Under the Iron Sea

Interscope

Fame can make playing the underdog card a bit trying. The boys of Keane — lanky singer Tom Chaplin, keyboardist/songwriter Tim Rice-Oxley and drummer Richard Hughes— bet on an iffy hand with 2004’s “Hopes and Fears” but wound up beating the house.

After all, what’s a rock combo without either a guitarist or a dreamy singer like Coldplay’s Chris Martin?

Keane didn’t bother asking. Instead, the group leaned heavily on Mr. Chaplin’s creamy falsetto and its monster hit “Somewhere Only We Know.”

With “Under the Iron Sea,” its sophomore follow-up to “Hopes and Fears,” the British trio is still mulling over instant fame. Both less commercial and more introspective than “Fears,” the new disc lets the band fine-tune its singular sound while pondering life as rock stars.

Yet the change hasn’t dramatically altered Keane’s formula. Mr. Chaplin still sings like he needs a maternal hug, and Mr. Rice-Oxley’s lyrics occasionally veer toward the maudlin. At its worst, Keane sounds lifted from a high schooler’s Pee Chee folder. But when Mr. Chaplin hangs on a hook — as in “Crystal Ball,” for instance — its beauty drives us to distraction.

“Oh, crystal ball, save us all, tell me life is beautiful,” reads like bad poetry. However, under Mr. Chaplin’s grip, it becomes a buoyant singalong.

On the other hand, “Atlantic,” “Sea’s” opening track, trumpets the band’s reluctance to crank out a by-the-numbers sequel. “I don’t wanna be old and feel afraid,” Mr. Chaplin cries on the song’s sluggish opening as a crash of keyboard notes cocoons him from harm. “Atlantic” blossoms midway through — as do many of “Sea’s” 12 tracks.

“Is It Any Wonder,” the album’s first single, could be the lost track from U2’s “Achtung Baby.” Mr. Chaplin even exhales like his Bono-ness with just the right rock star nuance. Mr. Rice-Oxley’s keyboards fill in nicely for the Edge’s weapon of choice, even though Mr. Chaplin whines about being tired and, yes, afraid once again.

Those groupies must be a frightening lot.

“Bad Dream” and “Broken Toy” are middling rockers, while “Hamburg Song,” the album’s lone ballad, appears to find the musicians conflicted over their fates.

“I don’t want to be adored, don’t want to be first in line,” Mr. Chaplin pleads, a cautionary note applicable to either his career or a fractured romance.

Ultimately, “Under the Iron Sea” could be all things to all listeners — even if Keane isn’t quite sure what to make of itself yet.

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