ALBUM REVIEW: Keys – ‘Home Schooling’: lo-fi Welsh powerpop gems

COMING at you out of the Welsh capital Cardiff, Keys are a quintet who, we can glean from their photograph, love a pair of shades. A listen to their new digital-only release Home Schooling, which is out on August 21st, will also show that behind those tinted lenses there are ten eyes with an absolute vision of lo-fi powerpop tunesmithery.

For Home Schooling is a ten-track pebble of very finely observed songs, shining perfectly in the basics of a four-track recording environment. The skill of recording songs on what to us seems a quite basic, demo-worthy only process overlooked in these days of GarageBand and the like, the home studio brought even to your phone, is maybe a lost art; but it did PJ Harvey no harm, and let’s remember the great leap forward of the eight-track – Bronze Age to Iron Age from our lofty perspective in the 21st century – only came into being in 1966 – which means the four-track served the early recordings of The Beatles, The Kinks, The Byrds et al supremely well.

And there is a really lovely Lennonesque thing which surfaces in Home Schooling.

Take the second and third tracks on the album, “Phases” and “The Strain”, both of which take that new-found powerpop sheen of Rubber Soul and give ’em a bit of spit and polish. Both are lyrically bittersweet, even heartsore: in the latter we find singer-guitarist Matthew Evans “going through phases all the time” as the story moves on. The four-track gives a lovely compression, those guitars a little rough and all the more perfect for that imperfection. His amour is “calling up your boyfriend on the phone”: God, who doesn’t recall the pillow-burying ache of unrequited love?

“The Strain” chimes in, guitars no doubt strapped at that chest height which seems to drop from favour somewhere around the time Cream started to wig out. Matthew’s voice has this eerie slight filtering that really makes you think you’re listening on a compressed 45rpm on your Dansette. It also reminds me of the lost US outfit Cotton Mather in its guitar pop delight. You can pour this one into your shell-likes, below.

Matthew Evans, songwriter, vocalist and guitarist with Keys, says the whole four-track thing intuited the writing, not just the production: “When you start realising that these songs were going to be recorded somewhat intimately into a four-track machine, it has an impact on the type of song you write. 

“As Julian Cope says: ‘The verses can lie if the chorus is pretty’. [‘Phases’] is one of the most introspective tunes we’ve written. It’s the Lennonesque chords; they insist on a blue feeling.”

Okay, you say, the post-Beatles powerpop school. But not only are they damn good at it – let’s take time to mention the ghostly organ textures of “Cold Hands”, too – but there’s a lot more going on here.

For instance, if you’ve read this far, and you obviously have, album opener “This Side Of Luv” is a proper glampop thang. It knows the beauty of a four-note lick that descends a semitone, bah-bom-bom-bom. It has perfect white teeth, maybe a little tartan trim on its flares. “I wasn’t born to be with you / We spoke in stolen lines” leaves you in no doubt which side of love our narrator has bumped down hard on. This would have had the teens screaming at a Heathrow homecoming in summer ’72. Let’s wave our scarves aloft now.

Title track “Home Schooling” is actually a raw-edged little punker, a member’s young daughter picking up the chant “Stay at home / For home schooling”. I reckon Poly Styrene would be happy to have this one under her belt. 

“Cargoes” brings Curt Boettcher’s Millennium to mind, Matthew singing of exotic goods and far-off ports: “Palestine, sandalwood, cedar wood and sweet white wine”, before bringing it back to Tiger Bay with coal, firewood, sheep; “Your Name Across My Heart” isn’t a psych-pop rerub of the Terence Trent D’Arby smoocher (but there’s an entirely separate and brilliant idea); it has that easy and effortless swoon of those four lovable lads’ “I’m Only Sleeping”.

Everything comes to a giddy conclusion on the instrumental “Pressure Cooker”, on which a droning and phasing guitar pushes out furthur over a pulsing, two-note, krautrock bass. Subtle keys and electronics play in and about the haze like the lick of a sugarcube. Neat.

My only caveat then with Key’s sally into four-trackery: the perfect haptic realisation of these ten tracks would of course be the reborn 12-inch wax. For the moment it’s a digital-only thang; there is a CD version to come, we are told. 

Climb aboard for now with Matthew and the chaps, however. Cardiff has a cute powerpop-psych thing going. It’s just a bunch of great little tunes that will make life nicer. That’s all good. The little things make life better, especially now, right?

Matthew summarises the collection of songs that make up Home Schooling as “something to help us get through this lockdown. Hopefully you can use it, too.”

Keys’ Home Schooling will be released by Libertino Records on digital format this Friday, August 21st; book your lesson slot here.

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