Right now, the mild-mannered English trio Keane is the hot U.K. export for American listeners counting down the days to the release of Coldplay's third album later this year. On its debut, Hopes and Fears, the band offers just the right kind of extravagantly earnest melancholy that the past decade has led us to expect from British bands: In the album's opener (and their current radio hit) "Somewhere Only We Know," singer Tom Chaplin admits that "I'm getting old, and I need something to rely on" over a gently pounding piano line that sounds up to the task. In "Bend and Break," he complains of having a "lovesick, bitter, and hardened heart" and of "aching, waiting for life to start."
In nearly every way, Hopes and Fears is a perfectly ordinary example of its increasingly familiar kind -- not least because Chaplin sounds very much like Fran Healy, lead singer of Travis, a band of Glaswegian mope merchants who themselves leased Keane's current spot in American pop just a few years ago. But scan the CD's tasteful black-and-white booklet, and you'll notice something unique about Keane: It doesn't have a guitar player.
It's easier to figure this out from the booklet than from the music, because Keane's other two members -- piano player Tim Rice-Oxley and drummer Richard Hughes -- make a noise that doesn't sound incomplete. Rice-Oxley fills the songs with waves of chords and arpeggios, and Hughes doesn't shy away from the occasional disco beat when the fancy strikes him. As melodists, Chaplin and Rice-Oxley favor the same sort of skyscraping minor-to-major tunes many of their guitar-band peers do. And in a pinch, an electric piano can twinkle just as efficiently as a six-string.
In its best moments, it's actually hard to imagine Hopes and Fears with a guitar player. There's a refreshingly uncluttered prettiness to cuts like "She Has No Time," a dazed slo-mo ballad, and "Sunshine," a dreamy midtempo rocker, that a generous helping of amplifier fuzz would only obfuscate. When they use their stripped-down lineup as a strength, you conclude that Keane lacks a guitar player not because of the novelty, but because it makes musical sense. As it turns out, it's because the guitar player left.
"It happened out of circumstance, really, more than anything else," Chaplin says on the phone during a tour stop in Atlanta. "We did have a guitarist; we were kind of a very standard guitar band. He left the band about three or four years ago, and it kind of forced us to really think about what we were doing. I think we went to try and play what came naturally to us. Tim had been playing the bass and switched to piano, Richard carried on playing the drums, and I began to concentrate more on the vocals. It's sort of a funny thing: As soon as we started doing what came naturally, things got a lot better for us." He laughs. "I think in a weird way it was actually a very positive thing that the guitarist left. It caused us to change the way we were as a band and not be more standard and like everyone else, but to try and be a little bit different."
The degree of difference Keane offers lies in the eye of the beholder, of course; the band's current junk-rocking tourmates from Liverpool, the Zutons, are a far more eccentric bunch in rhyme and reason. But the no-guitar tag certainly won't hurt Keane in its bid to transfer its considerable success at home -- where Q magazine recently anointed the three-piece 2004's Band of the Year -- to the States, where our ears aren't as accustomed to sussing the fine gradations between Embrace and Cast. Chaplin admits that making it in America is a priority for him and his bandmates.
"Along with a lot of other things, we've dreamed about it for a long, long time," he says. "Coming to America and achieving something here is a real ambition for us. And we feel like we have something to offer American people with our music. I think at the moment that seems to be paying off. It seems like people are sort of getting into what we do, and that's quite cool for us."
Is what they have to offer specific to their being from Britain? "We're a very sort of honest English band," Chaplin replies. "We are who we are, and I guess if you're American, then that's something you don't come across every day. We're obviously very influenced by what we've grown up listening to in Britain: Radiohead, U2, and bands like that, who are all kind of quintessentially British or Irish. And there's a great kind of culture of music in Britain and a great tradition of songwriting -- that's something that we're very proud to be a part of."
More than his national heritage, though, Chaplin seems to place a premium on the guilelessness of Keane's music, of the modest, plain-folks truth in a line such as "Many's the time I ran with you down the rainy roads of our old town," from Hopes and Fears' contemplative closer, "Bedshaped." He seems savvy enough to grasp that the power of music is that it gives flight to a sentiment as banal as that, but he also insists on adhering to the chimera of pop-star authenticity.
"To be honest, wherever you go in the world, if you write honest, heartfelt music, then I think people will connect with it," he says. "I think our music translates to any type of person, because I think we're very honest and heartfelt and emotional with what we do, and I think people respond to that. We're not pretending to be anything we're not, you know? That's the best kind of music -- where people bare their souls and say what they really feel."
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