"Verlaine's New Values"

Village Voice, 1984

by Glenn Kenny

The era of the guitar hero is over. I know; I read it in the Times. Y'see, instead of concentrating their energies on wasteful, indulgent soloing, guitarists are now doing new things with their axes, interfacing them with all the latest technological advances; a new guitar-based rock music is coming to the fore. Bored yet? Me too, so let's just stick to my own theory, which says that most smart musicians are getting smarter and most dumb ones are getting dumber. This accounts for good records like 'Basic' (Quine and Maher) and 'Who Needs Enemies' (Frith and Kaiser) and for awful ones like 'Bewitched' (although as an ex-fan I hate to call Fripp dumb; maybe he just gets senile under Summer's sway).

Using this simple but elegant theory, we can posit right off the bat that Tom Verlaine's 'Cover' (his first record in two years) is good, and we'd be right. But the specifics in this case bear some looking into; 'Cover' is the warmest, funniest, most out-and-out listenable record Verlaine has made. Which it had damn well better be, because it sure ain't revelatory ('Marquee Moon', that was revelatory) or galvanizing ("There's A Reason"--- I'm listening to it now, that galvanizing) or any of the heavy things Verlaine's music is supposed to be. Which isn't to say it's completely without its effect. "Travelling", for instance, does a good job of evoking its eponymous subject; it just doesn't make you leave your house, as you might while listening to, say, "The Fire".

Verlaine doesn't express these new values so much in his guitar playing as in the production. The guitar work is ubiquitous but modest; solos are rare, and when they do appear they're purely functional, supporting the tunes rather than defining them. But his previous records, for all their virtues, were austerely made, often resulting in a sound that was harsher than it had to be; on 'Cover' the overdubbed keyboards, vocals, drum machines, guitars, and whatnot (I swear I hear a rubber duck squeaking in the background of the classic wimp ballad, "O' Foolish Heart") make the songs vibrate with an aural color that's almost luxuriant. Everyone speaks of Verlaine the guitar wiz, sometimes forgetting that he's just as much a studio obsessive. (Remember those Television interviews where he'd talk at length about a mixing board? Or the time he asked Hall and Oates what mikes Neil Young used on 'Zuma', as if they'd know? I do.)

As for 'Cover's' songs, they're pretty catchy, especially on the first side. Sounds like Verlaine heard a lot of "new music" in the past two years, and listened to much old stuff as well. The fake Middle Eastern synth riff that decorates "Travelling" could have come from Blancmange (yeesh), but Verlaine contextualizes it beautifully; the riff floats on top of a fast, funky rhythm arrangement with offsetting nervous-making metal-scraper guitar leads that you haven't heard from Adrain Belew before, just in case you thought Belew had cornered the market on them. Equally amazing is how Verlaine can make the most decrepit devices in the book work for him simply by virtue of his never having used them before. On the LP's opener, "Five Miles of You" (written with second guitarist Jimmy Ripp, who's doing real well, thanks), he overdubs a goofy basso chant of "walk" to anticipate each chorus. After the last verse he drops the chant and charges headlong into the chorus, playing a restrained but powerful lead over his vocals. He's saying "climax" in big neon letters and he makes you like it.

Also likable here is the singing; though he's no Perry Como, old Tom sounds positively relaxed most of the time. That anxious whine only shows up on "Let Go The Mansion", a Casiotone-and-guitar lullaby and the one song it's totally inappropriate to. It's also the single. As for humor, dig the Li'l Abner imitation on "Lindi Lu", the sad tale of a spurned hick whose girl leaves him a farewell note calling him "butterhead". Or "Swim", where, after declaiming one of his "41 Monologues" ("A work in progress", says the inner sleeve), Verlaine introduces the bassline to "Duke of Earl" and overdubs harmonies that make him sound like the Sandpipers.

While many will carp over the fact that 'Cover' does not aspire to "major" status, I'm enjoying myself too much to complain. After all, Verlaine did keep all his smarts about him (heart as well) for this record; he just lowered the stakes a little bit. I mean, sometimes you like your Jack Daniel's straight, sometimes with soda.