TOM VERLAINE'S MATERIAL LACKS PUNCH
Boston Globe, 13th April 1990
by Jim Sullivan
At: The Paradise, Wednesday. |
Tom Verlaine, leader of the group Television, was one of the standout guitarist-singers of the mid-'70s New York new wave - emphasis, by the way, on guitarist. Television made just two albums, but made an imprint. Unlike their contemporaries, Verlaine and partner Richard Lloyd were new wavers who were unafraid of a long, snarling, lyrical guitar battle. Call them the Neil Young & Crazy Horse of their day. You can hear their ideas reverberating now in the music of 11th Dream Day.
After Television split, Verlaine embarked upon a hit-and-miss solo career; his music had the flavor, but not always the resonance of vintage Television songs like "Venus de Milo," "Foxhole" "Friction" or "Marquee Moon." Nevertheless, Verlaine's concerts, rare as they were, always provided penetrating poetic musings and exquisite electric guitar jolts.
Off the circuit for several years, Verlaine resurfaced Wednesday night before half a house at the Paradise and provided only the poetic musings. Playing solo and acoustic, Verlaine tried to create a hush room where he once cast a spell.
It didn't fly. Without the bass-and-drums kick, too much of Verlaine's material lacked dynamics or punch. And, as Verlaine stuck mostly to rhythmic strumming, too many of the songs seemed simply like rough demo versions - fairly appealing, mid-tempo selections that might have gone further given that electric embrace. (If Verlaine's going to continue in this low-budget, solo format, he might consider pulling a Billy Bragg, namely, hauling out the electric guitar for a good punky thrashing.) What was odd about the short concert - under an hour - was that Verlaine's music used to possess a certain grating quality, both in his reedy voice and in his histrionic guitar playing. It was not grating in a bad way: It gave the songs a barbed-wire edge and urgency, a tension. Wednesday, Verlaine, dressed in a black mock turtleneck and jeans, sang in an even-keel Lou Reed-like voice and his guitar playing never once suggested the clashing elements of old. This was, rather, unadorned, bare-bones folk music - and pretty at that.
Which is not to say some of Verlaine's thoughts didn't connect. He began by singing of romantic notions and love like a potion and kept circling back to the theme. His most effective song painted a sharp picture of wintry isolation, where Verlaine found himself repeatedly "asking myself questions, giving myself answers." But, as a listener, you had to work to pick up the gist. Verlaine's music itself didn't provide the enticement.
Early on, someone yelled for "Marquee Moon," a twin-guitar battle and an emotional tour de force. "I was waiting for someone to say that," said Verlaine. "Get it over with -- it doesn't work." And it wouldn't have in this context. But the yearning for that song, perhaps, was just the yearning for some flash, structural drama and complexity. Or, maybe, just some familiarity. Only "Words From the Front" was familiar; most of the set came from Verlaine's just-released "The Wonder" album -- released in Europe only. (IRS is supposed to put it out in the United States in May.) The record was recorded with a band and thus probably rocks. But Wednesday's set was far too restrained and polite. It didn't push and it didn't pull.