Song of the Day #68: ‘Hamburg Song’ – Keane

I very much dislike the role image plays in popular music. The idea that a bunch of glorified strippers like The Pussycat Dolls can get a record deal while some less telegenic artist labors in obscurity is just repugnant.

That said, I will admit that my first impression of Keane was based entirely on the appearance of lead singer Tom Chaplin in the video for their first hit, ‘Somewhere Only We Know.’ And it wasn’t a good one.

In the video, Chaplin wears a tight leather jacket with belted black jeans — in a forest [see screengrab]. This always struck me as incredibly stupid, and filled me with the urge to slap his doughy English face. A completely ridiculous reaction, I know, but I’m just being honest here.

The sad thing is that my dislike of the video kept me from recognizing that it’s a damn good song. Eventually I got over my issues and picked up the debut album, Hopes and Fears, which turned out to be excellent.

Like Ben Folds Five, Keane’s lineup is piano-bass-drums, but their sound couldn’t be more different. They are cut from the Coldplay mold, and it’s impressive that such a small band produces such a big sound.

‘Hamburg Song’ is not “big” by any means, musically. It’s the centerpiece track on their second album, Under the Iron Sea, and it’s about as simple as it gets — a piano tune that feels like it’s going to explode into a power ballad at any moment but thankfully never does. I like it so much I don’t care what the hell Tom Chaplin is wearing.

25 thoughts on “Song of the Day #68: ‘Hamburg Song’ – Keane

  1. Dana says:

    I have heard some Keane tunes that I liked better than this one. This one, to me, goes beyond boring (indeed, I’m reaching for James Taylor for an infusion of energy). It actually reminds me a bit of a funeral derge in parts. I’m not a big fan of Coldplay, so perhaps this is why I just don’t get so into this kinda stuff. Give me Folds any day and twice on Sunday.

  2. Amy says:

    Well that was mean! Clay has just confessed to adoring this song, for cyring out loud. This song doesn’t strike me as boring in the least. Rather, it is almost painfully intimate. I feel as though I’m eavesdropping on a very private moment. Since I’m a voyeur at heart, I’m okay with that, though.

    While I disagree with Clay that the prospect of Chaplin donned in leather and sitting in a forest while singing this song woudn’t take away from how powerful it is, I do agree that this is a study in how effective “simple” music can be. There is such a vulnerability in his delivery of these lyrics that it almost doesn’t matter what he’s singing, but the fact that the lyrics are moving in their own right just makes the song that much better.

  3. Clay says:

    Obviously I side with Amy’s reaction.

    I wouldn’t listen to a whole album of songs this slow and yes, dirge-like, but I love when a group or solo artist can pull off something this intimate.

    And I welcome the meanness. 🙂 But I think Dana’s completely wrong, of course.

  4. Dana says:

    Wasn’t trying to be mean, just expressing my opinion. ANd feel free to correct my misspelling of dirge. 🙂

  5. Clay says:

    I will leave it in place as a badge of shame! 🙂

    I didn’t find your comment mean. And I hope my James Taylor comment wasn’t received that way.

  6. Dana says:

    That’s funny, because Amy suspected you might leave the typo there for that reason:)

    I didn’t find your Taylor comments mean, just misguided and ironic given your general enjoyment of Taylor like and Taylor derivative music.

  7. Clay says:

    It just occurred to me, this ties right back into our recent discussion of genre in film. You find it “misguided” that I might dislike a specific artist in a genre that includes other artists I do like. And you dismissed this song because you don’t like the kind of stuff that Coldplay and Keane put out… a genre preference.

    In music, as in movies, I tend to like individual works more than genres. I’m not a punk fan by any means, but I love Green Day’s American Idiot (it’s the only think I like by them, in fact). On the flip side, I tend to like piano-based pop but I don’t like Tori Amos or that Jon McLaughlin guy DirecTV is always pushing on me because I’m a Ben Folds fan.

    So given the fact that I enjoy some artists with similarities to Taylor, I can see how (in your worldview) that means I should like Taylor as well. (And I don’t want to overstate my position… I certainly don’t dislike Taylor).

    Anyway, I certainly don’t want to open that can of worms again. Just think it’s interesting that the movie and music discussions seem to find a bit of an intersection here.

  8. Dana says:

    Yes, you are a Renaissance Man, sir…able to enjoy all things “good” (or at least critically acclaimed) and new, regardless of genre.

    So have you bought many Metallica or Guns N Roses albums lately? 🙂

  9. Clay says:

    Guns N Roses is a bad example… both of their albums were damn good (though, no, I don’t own them).

    But your point is a good one. Metal is to music what horror is to film… the one genre we all seem to agree on.

  10. Dana says:

    Oh and just so we can open some can of worms here….where the intersection truly exists, as Amy correctly identiried, is that you favor the hot new artist/critical darling over the old–whether it be in movies or music or TV. So, here, Keane is all the rave to you, but an artist like Taylor with a 30+ year history, not so much so. Yes, you have your expections like Dylan and Costello — but, as a general rule, you still prefer the new and the hip.

    So this year Elvis Costello’s Momofuku is praised by you as one of his best albums in years–but somehow lags behind Evil Urges. And in 2006, Dylan’s album was good to you, but not as good as your newer discovered Mayer and Belle & Sebastian. In 2005, the ancient Boss’ “superb” (your words) album, takes a back seat to all the newer artists (most if whom never released an album before the 90’s), 2004 again finds Elvis sitting behind newer artists like Rufus. etc…

  11. Dana says:

    I said Guns N Roses because they were critically well received, just as Metallica was.

  12. Clay says:

    Sure, I fully admit I seek out and enjoy new artists. I wouldn’t say Keane is “all the rave” to me, however… I ranked this album at #9 in 2006, behind such dinosaurs as Dylan, Springsteen and The Beatles.

    I think that argument can cut both ways. R.E.M. put out an album this year that I think got a lot more critical acclaim than it deserves. I like it quite a bit, and I do see it as something of a return to form after a couple of lackluster efforts, but it isn’t cracking my top ten list right now because I don’t find myself reaching for it. Should I move it up a few notches based on their longevity?

    And you neglected to mention that my #1 album of the year is by Aimee Mann, who has been around since the mid-80s.

    My top ten artists are primarily people/groups who have been around for 15-20 years or more. That doesn’t mean every one of their releases will be in the top five in a given year, though. If they were, I’d see that as a bias in the other direction.

  13. Amy says:

    Did Dana argue this point as vehemently before he turned 40? Just curious 🙂

  14. Dana says:

    Your lack of enthusiasm for REM proves my point.

    Now, I do see Aimee Mann as almost a singular excpetion to my theory as she has been around awhile, and you do consistently rate her albums high.

    But saying that your artists have been around for 15-20 years is a bit disingenuous since, in many cases, they were not on your radar 15-20 years ago and, in any event, you still often rank them lower than the 20+ year artists. In fact, you were not digging Aimee Mann in the 80’s when she was in Til Tuesday–you discovered her in the past 10-15 years.

  15. Clay says:

    How high do you rank the new REM album?

  16. Dana says:

    I didn’t care much for it, but I don’t care for their harder edged stuff as much as you do, I mean did….

  17. Clay says:

    I like all their albums, but I like the harder-edged ones less than the “jangly” stuff (here’s how I ranked them back when Accelerate came out).

    Looking at that list, their three most recent albums rank in the bottom six. I suppose you’d argue that I turned my back on R.E.M. in favor of some new band. I would argue that they made much better albums before Bill Berry left the band.

    And I think your rankings of the same albums would support my claim.

  18. Amy says:

    As I rarely pay any attention to the new, my ranking would definitely support that theory. Not that they aren’t making albums that are as good as they once did, but that I have ceased to take notice. For me, and, perhaps, for all of us, whatever happens to currently be on my radar gets the most frequent attention and praise. That might be a new album from an ancient singer or a new album from the newest flavor of the month or, most likely for me, an old favorite by an old favorite.

    Not sure what any of this has to do with the heavily leathered, forest bound singer of Keane, but an intriguing discussion nonetheless.

  19. Dana says:

    Youo are focusing on the REM, but since we both agree it was not one of their best albums, your ranking is understandable. But what say you about the new Elvis? A great album, and, as you said, one of his best in years. Yet it sits behind Tift and Evil Urges? Can’t wait until you play Evil Urges in the song of the day? Who are they? Does it not seem a bit strange to you that one of the best albums in years by one of your favorite artists is sitting 4th so far in 2008? I think it supports my theory in spades.

  20. Clay says:

    It’s one of Elvis’ best albums in years, but it ain’t King of America, Imperial Bedroom or Get Happy.

    How high would you rank The Juliet Letters or Painted From Memory? Or even When I Was Cruel, which was a fine album but not up to the standards of Elvis’ best work?

    I don’t really get the argument you’re making here (again, because I think we approach these things from entirely different perspectives).

    Do you give extra points to an album if it’s recorded by an artist that’s among your favorites? Or do you judge the music apart from that? I try my best to do the latter. So I’m not placing My Morning Jacket up against Elvis Costello… I’m placing Evil Urges up against Momofuku.

  21. Dana says:

    well, first Momofuko is better than the 3 albums you mentioned, wouldn’t you agree? And so, that being said, would you not agree that it belongs in the upper tier of Elvis albums?

    Yes, you should compare album to album with no additional weight given to the artist’s history. My argument is that what YOU do is discount Momofuko because it ain’t from the new guy and, conversely, give too much weight to Evil Urges because it is some out of left field new group (at least it is to me, unless of course they have been around since the 80’s). Of course, since I haven’t heard this apparently tremendous effot from the Urges, I can’t speak to your ranking any further. So put up the best Urges song for song of the day honors and let’s hear it! If the album is so good that it kicks the crap out of a better than average Elvis album (which translates to a FAR better than average record for anybody else), I think you should dedicate a week to this band.

  22. Clay says:

    Yes, Momofuku is better than those albums, which is why I describe it as his best album in years. If it came out the year after King of America, I wouldn’t describe it that way.

    Depending on how many Elvis tiers there are, and how many albums in each tier, I’d likely have it in the second or third. It’s a great album. But I happen to like three albums better this year.

    Here’s my review of Evil Urges. My Morning Jacket has been around for ten years, though this is the first album of theirs I’ve gotten.

    And I did go out and buy another one after liking this one so much, but it didn’t really wow me.

    I’ll turn your argument around and say that what YOU do is give too much weight to the “old guy” and too quickly dismiss the “new guy” when ranking albums. Actually, I don’t know if that’s even the case… because you weren’t so thrilled with the newest albums by R.E.M., Lyle Lovett, Bob Dylan, etc. So maybe you just do that when criticizing MY rankings!

  23. Dana says:

    well, I don’t rank albums. You do, which leafves me with the pleasure of making my arguments without being subject to analysis as to my taste. Obviously, we have had these debates in a more even context with movies, where you acknowledge that you favor the new guys over the old guard. I’m suggesting you do that with music as well, though Amy doesn’t necessarily agree and you apparently don’t either.

  24. Clay says:

    I’ll have a lengthy analysis on this going up as a new post sometime soon. 🙂

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