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Steven Keene: “It Is What It Is” (2020) CD Review

Steven Keene is a singer and songwriter who has a talent for storytelling as well as a talent for tapping into the hungers and longings that so many people have but perhaps don’t express. We deal with many of those feelings through drink, and his new album is, among other things, a great drinking album. Titled It Is What It Is, this CD contains all original music written by Steven Keene, songs that deal with lost love and the sometimes less-than-lofty sides of romance. By the way, this release is being referred to as an EP, but it contains thirty-four minutes of music, which qualifies it as an LP. Joining the singer and guitarist on this album are Joseph Chiarolanza on bass, Joseph Napolitano on pedal steel, Matt O’Ree on guitar, Rich Scannella on drums and Arne Wendt on keys, as well as several guests on certain tracks.

The disc opens with “Can’t See It When You’re In It,” which begins with some work on keys. Soon a strong groove is established, a groove that works to quickly pull us in. Steven Keene’s vocals have something of an intimate quality, like he is speaking directly to us, from right next to us. “Now give it to me straight/Tell me what you see/Don’t worry what you say/Just don’t lie to me/Now tell it to my face/Don’t beat around the bush/Give me the truth, friend/Give me a healthy push.” I like the way the word “friend” is delivered and used here; it’s given a different stress, so a bit of a punch; it’s like using that word makes it more of an honest entreaty, and opens him up a bit too. Then later in the song he sings, “Give me an honest friend/One that cares.” Those are depressing lines, for what they imply about the friends he has. In these days when we count online acquaintances as “friends,” it is probably no surprise that these relationships lack honesty and depth. This track also features a short, but cool jam. Lisa Testa provides some good backing vocals. That song is followed by “Far Better Friend Than Lover.” I really like those backing vocals by Michele Weir. That “Mmm-mmm” comes as the female reaction to his lines, perhaps taking a bit of the sting from them, right? Or it’s like both parties feel the same way, which is interesting. This is a cool tune. “I’m not saying, baby, that you’re not for me/Just saying, baby, you’re not my destiny.” I can’t help but think of Crispin Glover in Back To The Future when hearing that “destiny” line. This track also features some good work on guitar, particularly at the end.

In “She Used Me, I Used Her…” Steven Keene sings, “They said it’s wrong, but we didn’t care/She used me, and I used her/But no one cared.” It is interesting that this song has a loving and gentle vibe, which oddly works to give those lyrics a sweeter sense than they might otherwise have. And here again his vocal delivery has an intimate quality which adds to that feel. That pretty work on piano likewise adds to it. This track features some nice work on pedal steel. I also really like the percussion here. Toward the end, that main line changes to “She loved me, and I loved her.” Is it a realization? Or could it be that something that began without such ardor then grew deeper? And yet, the line is in the past tense, which gives it a sad quality. Could the realization have come too late? Or is it rather than he looks back at the relationship with more fondness than was present at the time? There is something beautiful about this track. It is then followed by “Don’t Blame It On The Alcohol,” which has something of a country feel, which of course is perfect for its subject. “Now I ain’t expecting any great affection/I ain’t dwelling on this deception/And I ain’t looking for any special attention/We both knew our true intentions/So don’t blame it on the alcohol/Or say that things got out of control.” These lines do seem a variation on the theme introduced in the previous track, about not looking for anything too special from a lover. This track features more nice work on pedal steel, and Michele Weir adds some pretty backing vocals. “Now why don’t we just go out for a drink/We both need one now, don’t you think?” Absolutely! I’ve been drinking steadily since November of 2016.

On the album’s title track, “It Is What It Is,” Steven offers these words: “Some things can’t be undone/Don’t get stuck on right or wrong/Don’t look back, or ask why/These few words will get you by.” The song is comforting, but I don’t believe it is encouraging complacency. I know some people hate it when someone says “It is what it is,” for they feel there is a hopelessness to the phrase. But here Steven sings, “Let go what causes pain/Find peace with this/It is what it is.” We can’t tackle everything. We can’t change everything. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to effect change. But also we shouldn’t go mad in reaction to all the terrible things going on out there, even the things that are directed at us. Don’t dwell on the things that have damaged us, for then they will continue to damage us. Mike Ribler plays guitar on this track, and Steve Holley is on drums.

“Until You” is an uplifting number with a full folk sound that includes some nice work on mandolin. “I never knew what true love meant/Until you.” That’s what I’ve been saying to my girlfriend for several years. I think we need another word for everything that happens up until that special person comes into our lives, that thing we take for love until we actually find love. This track features a good bass line. I also like the harmonica. You know, this is just a really good song, feeling like a sweet celebration of love, of finding that one person. Then “By Your Side” is the song that got me interested in this album. It was released as a single back in November. It’s a beautiful song featuring a moving vocal performance, a song of heartache and longing, of lost love. His vocal delivery is what makes this song so effective. It is all there in his voice – an entire history, as well as a sadness about the present and future. It all rings true. “I can’t make this change/Too much remains/And you, is it the same for you?” This track feels even stronger in the context of the rest of the album, and is hitting me harder than it did when I first heard it several months ago. This track features some wonderful and passionate guitar playing toward the end, just before the song fades out. Layonne Holmes provides backing vocals on this track.

Steven Keene then switches gears with “Let It Be Me, Once Again,” a tune with a strong groove, though this one too deals with a lost love. “Forget the past/There’s no one to blame/Let’s put it behind/And end this foolish game/In the end, it’s all just the same.” There is an optimistic, positive sound and feel to this song. “Time will change/Time can mend/Time will bring us closer once again.” Oh yes, we can use that sort of optimism. The disc then concludes with “Head On Is Not An Angle,” a pretty and moving track. Interestingly, this one refers to the title track, “It Is What It Is.” “You took away what made me want to stay” is a beautifully sad line.

CD Track List
Can’t See It When You’re In It
Far Better Friend Than Lover
She Used Me, I Used Her…
Don’t Blame It On The Alcohol
It Is What It Is
Until You
By Your Side
Let It Be Me, Once Again
Head On Is Not An Angle
It Is What It Is was released on January 10, 2020.