The Keystone Kids – Things Get Shaky
Record Label: Deep Elm Records
Release Date: May 21, 2012
Sometimes, inspiration comes from the weirdest places. Isaac Newton changed the world because an apple fell on his head. Adele got dumped—then shattered Billboard records and won Emmys after she channeled her emotions into 21. But those innovations were direct, and everybody knows what their origin stories are.
What strikes me as special about Things Get Shaky, the seven-song effort from Pennsylvania electropop duet The Keystone Kids, is that without reading the press release, you would never know that its creative roots can be traced back to Jersey Shore, a show whose greatest contribution to the zeltgeist is raising awareness about domestic violence by airing footage of star Snooki being socked a good one in the face. Listen to “Crumble”, the opener of this set: it’s a sweet little piano ditty with hints of rock lingering in the stomper of a drumbeat. How could something so delectable come from something so….unsterilized?
One factor that helps here is the interplay between the two keystone kids; they come from backgrounds so different that they could star in Step Up 4: Not Really A Dance Movie. Here, pianist and songwriter Carly Comando crosses paths with punk-rocker Ryan O’Donnell, and the two styles dovetail fantastically. Album midpoint “Falling” has delicate piano swirls and Comando’s bright, sincere voice reverberating throughout the track before O’Donnell comes in with a more mournful perspective; the two circle each other before we hit a raucous mess of a chorus. The two declare, “I’m either falling in love or falling down,” but both statements hold truth, and the blend of tones fleshes their tortured ruminating out.
For a group that can be downright folksy at times (“Falling” perhaps the folksiest), The Keystone Kids incorporate elements of electronic music surprisingly frequently, with varying degrees of success. The modulation on the vocals distracts from the otherwise pleasant and heartfelt “Mouth”, and “What They’re Saying”, while much smoother, moves a bit too rigidly to feel completely heartfelt. The Keystone Kids hit more than they miss, though, and the experimentation with electronic elements pays off on the addictive and dancey “Up All Night”, which layers chunky synth melodies between guitar twangs and a four-on-the-floor beat before hurling them all at the wall. Comando and O’Donnell’s vocals rise to meet the intensity of the song in its chorus, and it’s an absolutely enthralling moment that may be the peak of Things Get Shaky.
The themes of Things Get Shaky play to Comando and O’Donnell’s strengths; the lyrics etch stories of longing, passion, and heartbreak. Here’s where the comparison to Jersey Shore comes in: both the album and the show thrive on the ambiguity on love, the rollercoaster of emotions that it can take you on. Unlike Jersey Shore, however, the sentiment isn’t bawdy or off-putting but smart and sincere. When O’Donnell sings a line like, “I’m running out of synonyms for the word ‘apology’ / Next time it won’t be so empty if you come back to me,” on the washed-out ballad “44” you want to believe him for all the regret—and hope—he invests into his words. While Things Get Shaky never even comes close to punk-rock (despite some rabble rousing here and there), it wears its bleeding heart on its sleeve proudly, just as the best bands of O’Donnell’s genre do.
The funny thing about all art, be it a Mozart sonata or MTV’s Teen Mom 2, is that all of it encodes a message into the work. Our tendency to look for enlightenment in the high places means we leave a lot of the stuff we deem dirty out of the conversation, and while that’s good in many cases, sometimes we might be missing something profound. With Things Get Shaky, The Keystone Kids have listened to something that we didn’t know had worth and crafted something that says it better than Snooki ever could. I’m happy about that.
EDIT: There was a typo in the original version of this review. Ryan O'Donnell, to my great disappointment, is not in fact a "punk-rocket" but a "punk-rocker".