Early impressions on hearing Tom Verlaine’s first releases since 1992 are along the lines of “And this is the stuff he kept?”. It’s hard to imagine the decision process involved. Both these records, Songs And Other Things, his first solo vocal set since 1990’s The Wonder, and Around, a sequel to previous guitar instrumental collection Flash Light – exist in a small world.
That is, they’re sketchy. Even the songs have an apologetic edge, Tom’s limited vocal palate doing the rounds through hip talk, a sneer and a whine, and back again. Catching him and his guitar at the Bowery Ballroom in New York a few years into the long silence, the same shifty doodling held sway. My unwilling guest muttered something about Dire Straits, and I winced.
The back story of course, is of the improv-crazy, Coltrane-loving guitarist, who with his more abrasive half, Richard Lloyd, forged Television‘s decidedly un-punk ’77 album Marquee Moon. If a better debut album has crept out since then I missed it. Verlaine’s dexterity, sensitivity and goddamn originality graced half a dozen or so solo records through the �80s, so cool he ended up writing his own cliches. And since 1992, Television have periodically turned up on a stage together, putting dinner on the table, and providing a reminder of the sheer tension Verlaine and Lloyd can create together – so taut it cuts you right down.
If we’re to believe the man, he’s been sitting with an old tape recorder, knocking stuff out for his own amusement all these years. There was nearly an album some time ago, and then it was shelved, amid rumours of guitars being sold on eBay – and then nothing. And then? Thrill Jockey, devil-may-care label of Tortoise et al, gives a stubborn old publicity-shy, set-in-his-ways guitar-slinger a new home. It fits perfectly.
So you wind up putting those two records on heavy rotation. Around is low-key, yes, but revealed to be full of those cries and swoops, flutters and chimes that are unmistakebly Verlaine, and weirdly engaging. It’s music to be played in a small room, preferably under minimal lighting, where the pieces take you straight to that prairie, swimming pool or Indian restaurant they suggest.
Songs is a tougher nut to crack. Maybe getting back to vocals shifts the focus – certainly the structure of songs like Lovebird Asylum Seeker or Heavenly Charm, whilst lyrically oblique, lend themselves to modelling by the small band of former accomplices and NY dudes present. The dynamic has more in common with Verlaine’s best (known) work, even if the drama isn’t as fully realised. Again, though he might not be pulling up any trees here, Tom Verlaine has assembled a very tidy little set. Now if he can just get his ass out there again, and maybe not leave it another 14 years…