By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
"I'm at this hot dog joint in Burbank and this waitress is so hot, but she has no idea," he explains via cell phone before a recent California gig. "She has a Southern accent, so she must have just moved out here."
So why doesn't he invite her to his show tonight?
"You're right, that is what I should do," he answers with a laugh. "That is what I'll actually do. Thanks, bro."
While it might seem strange that Keyes didn't come to this realization on his own, the 24-year-old is full of contradictions. From 2000 to 2005, he fronted the Austin, Texas, post-hardcore act Recover yet he doesn't think it's strange that his new band, Young Love, sounds more like Justin Timberlake than Jawbox. Alternately, although he frequently performs at dance clubs and hipster parties, he becomes defensive when this writer refers to his full-length debut, Too Young to Fight It, as "dance music." Finally, although he's not the first guy to make the transition from heavy music to slick pop (Young Love has toured with former Glassjaw frontman Daryl Palumbo's dance-friendly act, Head Automatica), Keyes fails to see the similarities between himself and any of those peers.
"My album's not a dance record, it really isn't," he explains. "There are songs on it that you can dance to, but there are songs about love and heartbreak and really dark times. But as far as why anyone else would write a dance song, I have no idea."
Originally conceived by Keyes in 2000, Young Love first became known thanks to demos he circulated to friends over the course of the past five years. But things didn't become serious until he left Los Angeles and moved to Brooklyn, New York, two years ago.
"To be honest, when I got out to New York I just wanted to take a break from music," Keyes admits, recalling that he paid the rent by working at American Apparel during the day and bussing tables in the West Village in the evenings. "I was really disappointed in what was happening in music in general and after being on the road for my whole life, I just wanted to settle down and try to get back to something that was normal, you know? Then I moved to New York and somehow it sucked me back in, man."
Although both indie and major labels attempted to sign Young Love as soon as Recover broke free from its contract with Universal, Keyes was eventually persuaded to sign with Island Records after a private meeting with the label's CEO, Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter.
"I went out to brunch with Jay-Z and he was like, 'Yo man, this stuff is really hot, we gotta do this we're all artists here, you know?'" Keyes explains, and laughs as he adds, "You reach a point where you can only get yelled at by your manager at a restaurant so many times before making music doesn't sound that bad anymore."
Although Keyes characteristically doesn't consider Too Young to Fight It a slick album ("When I think of 'slick,' I think of club music that Timberlake does"), it is but not in a negative sense. In fact, as anyone lucky enough to have heard the band's lo-fi demos already knows, the sparkling production on the disc adds whole new dimensions to Keyes' jams. But while Fight does have its share of hi-hat driven beats, it also possesses remarkable variety. For instance, opener "Discotheque" is a throbbing dance number that's tailor-made for MisShapes dance parties, "Closer to You" sounds like Explosions in the Sky with a sequencer and an unforgettable chorus hook, and the acoustic closer "Close Your Eyes" shows that Keyes' songwriting is strong enough to hold up even in a stripped-down setting.
Then there are the lyrics, which are painfully unpretentious and wouldn't sound strange coming from Kelly Clarkson (or worse yet, Paris Hilton). "Trying hard to have a good time/You bring me down/Always talking to another guy when we go out," Keyes sings on "Take It or Leave It," over a bed of swirling synths and electronic flourishes. Then again, Recover's prophetically titled 2004 release, This May Be the Year I Disappear, contained such equally self-aware lyrics as, "Big choruses so all the kids can sing along." So really, Keyes has just recontextualized the same thing he's been doing for his whole career which is probably why Young Love's seemingly rapid ascent still feels completely organic to him.
"People have been asking me to put out these songs for as long as Recover's been together, so for me things aren't happening fast at all," Keyes explains. "Toward the end of the Recover days, a lot of people were coming at me saying, 'When you're done with this contract, we want to put this stuff out.' So honestly, I feel like I've been working on this record forever," he continues, noting that he will even be performing two new songs on this tour despite the fact that his record just came out a few weeks ago.
Ultimately, then, the real questions are: Will people actually connect with Keyes' music? Or despite sincere intentions will it just be the superficial fuel that allows hipsters to get their dance on ironically?