Tom Verlaine’s two new albums
“I was listening/Listening to the rain/I was hearing/Hearing something else,” Tom Verlaine sang on Television’s classic 1977 debut, Marquee Moon (Elektra). And that “something else” he heard is what’s set him apart from CBGB peers like Patti Smith, the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, and the other artists who emerged during New York’s fecund ’70s punk and new-wave scene. It’s what’s made Marquee Moon one of the more enduring lyrical rock guitar albums ever, right up there with anything by Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, or Richard Thompson.
SOTTO VOCE: You get the sense that Verlaine would prefer not to open his mouth at all, that he’d rather let his guitar do the talking.
So, yes, Marquee Moon is a stone classic. Its elliptical lyrics and anxious riffs are among some of the more obvious influences on the current crop of neo-new-wavers like Franz Ferdinand and Interpol. There’s also no doubt that Verlaine has been somewhat adrift ever since. Television’s 1978 album, Adventure, was a durable but much less urgent follow-up. And Verlaine has had trouble living up to his potential on his sporadic and mostly out-of-print solo recordings. That’s not to say that his eight non-Television albums haven’t had their moments; there are tracks on his ’79 Tom Verlaine debut (reissued by Collector’s Choice in 2003), ’81’s Dreamtime (Warner Bros.), and even ’84’s Cover (also Warner Bros.) that cut just as deep and hard as anything on Marquee Moon. But he’s never really expanded on what he accomplished on that first Television album. With the exception of the band’s 1992 homonymous reunion album on Capitol, not much has been heard from him in more than a decade. It’s been 16 years since his last vocal release. And his last solo album was an instrumental work that came out in 1992, the aptly titled Warm and Cool, which Thrill Jockey reissued last year.
Verlaine broke his silence back in April with two new Thrill Jockey discs: Songs and Other Things, on which he sings, and Around, on which he doesn’t. Both feature Verlaine’s trademark snaky guitar leads and angular rhythms, and the former has enigmatic lyrics sung in a twisted, glottal voice that’s often buried in the mix. You get the sense that Verlaine — who’s been quoted as saying that “singing and lyrics really seem to complicate everything, even the recording process” — would prefer to not open his mouth at all, that he’d rather let his guitar do the talking. Because though he often sounds like Lou Reed on Quaaludes, his guitar never fails to ring through loud and clear.
No surprise then that his playing on Songs and Other Things is sharp and true: “Heavenly Charms” grinds and growls, “Nice Actress” displays some twangy surfer cool, and the blues-tinged “All Weirded Out” throws off sparks like light flashing along a blade. The funky “From Her Fingers” and the chiming “The Earth Is in the Sky” even have hummable choruses. The moody and austere Around is a different beast. The tempos are measured, and when Television drummer Billy Ficca kicks in, he keeps the groove taut. The bleak atmospherics bring to mind the lonesome soundscapes of Brian Eno or Daniel Lanois. Verlaine’s playing is never showy and rarely rough, but that doesn’t mean Around lacks tension. Like Ry Cooder’s stark Paris, Texas soundtrack, it’s haunting in its quietude.
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