ROCK: Tom Verlaine by John Pareles

New York Times, Dec 25, 1984

by John Pareles

Tom Verlaine has been acclaimed as one of rock's finest guitarists since he led the band Television in the late 1970s. Now, he has decided to make a case for his songwriting. On his new album, 'Cover', his tunes are stripped down to guitar riffs, drumbeats and short lines of lyrics. Mr. Verlaine kept those songs terse and percussive when he brought his band to the Ritz last weekend. Most of Mr. Verlaine's lyrics are surreal, dreamlike narratives. At times, his song structures have attempted to reflect that flow, growing too diffuse for their own good; they would also dissolve for exploratory guitar solos. Onstage Saturday, however, Mr. Verlaine allowed himself extended solos only in a few older songs and in an encore, the Count Five's "Psychotic Reaction." Those solos, particularly a raga-like foray in Television's "Marquee Moon," were as strong as ever. Mr. Verlaine's newer songs are guitar showcases. They center on overlapping guitar riffs, played by Mr. Verlaine and Jimmy Ripp, that peal, screech, tingle and sigh.

Mr. Verlaine sings in a shaky, occasionally strangulated tenor - an expressive voice that may be an acquired taste for the majority of rock fans. Yet the tunes of Mr. Verlaine's songs are not in his vocals, but in those guitar riffs, and they are memorable ones. Mr. Verlaine didn't take his riffs for granted. While Fred Smith on bass, Jay Dee Daugherty on drums and Mr. Ripp played steady rhythm patterns, Mr. Verlaine continually reshaped his part of the counterpoint, slipping new ideas between the lines. Like a jazz musician, Mr. Verlaine tested and illuminated his songs. He added high, ringing harmonics to the finale of "Let Go the Mansion," and answered his vocal lines in "O Foolish Heart" with phrases in a shimmering vibrato. At other points in the set, there were moments that recalled rock's finest guitar-centered bands, from the Jimi Hendrix Experience to the Who to the Allman Brothers Band to Television. But there was no gratuitous doodling. Even with Mr. Verlaine's improvisations, the songs were skeletal. Beyond that, they showed an intelligence, and a willingness to take risks, that is too rare in current rock.