Television Personalities

Village Voice, Dec 1992

by John Piccarella

A dozen years ago in these pages I wrote that the first Tom Verlaine album wasn't much different than the next Television record would have been. Now - with that whole Reagan-Bush thing seeming like a bad dream - the new Television (Capitol) isn't much different than another Tom Verlaine. Except the next Tom Verlaine, recently arrived, Warm and Cool (Rykodisc) is a complete departure from anything either TV has produced. As that all-instrumental solo project makes clear (could have been called something like Electric Guitar Studies Volume 1 - timbral investigations and tube-amp sonorities of the '50s and '60s), Verlaine is a changed guitarist. What makes Television Television is of course Richard Lloyd, whose second guitar picks up where Verlaine never left him, jacked-to-the-ceiling intense and bound by the composer's spare intricacies.

     There are some who never forgave Verlaine for tossing Richard Hell. Sure we thrilled to the discovery of Robert Quine and Ivan Julian as TV front-line equals, and were giddy with the rival achievements of Marquee Moon and Blank Generation in 1977. But Television's austere elegance and the Voidoids' loose angles could have used each other. Just for the record, and just in time to qualify as competition, Hell has teamed up with Quine and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore in a studio aggregate dubbed Dim Stars. Neither Lloyd on Television nor Quine on Dim Stars (Caroline) are showcased as effectively as they both are on Matthew Sweet's Girlfriend. Anyone who's waited 15 years for this band to record anything like their epic solo jams still looks to some James Carville of the music industry to hang an "It's the Guitar, Stupid!" sign on the studio door.

     Yet Television is a guitar band, and Television is a guitar album - every bell tone or watery organ swell created without synthesizers or digital technology. From the twango profundo of "Shane, she wrote this" to the theremin-like reverb and wah-wah of "No Glamour For Willi", Verlaine draws from the moody palette of string resonances developed on Warm and Cool to create the distinct tenor of Television. On the solo record Verlaine frequently called up that deep reverberant hollow-body twang now heard everywhere from the Tim Buckley-meets-Duane Eddy of Chris Isaak, to the New Age-meets-fake jazz of Angelo Badalamenti's themes for David Lynch. Three of Warm and Cool's guitar-trio pieces, all titled "Depot", suggest the guitarscapes used by Miles Davis on "In A Silent Way" or "He Loved Him Madly". Elsewhere, Verlaine could be Chet Atkins, as in the country waltz "Boulevard", Les Paul to his own Mary Ford, or Wes Montgomery, as in the ringing octaves of "Little Dance". Only on the duets with Television drummer Billy Ficca, "Ore" and "Lore", does he essay distortion and density.

     Three of Television's 10 tracks are similar sonic exercises with vocals seemingly attached as an afterthought. "Rhyme", where Verlaine plays a sailor on shore leave in the red-light district ("Lonely man in a lonely town...overseas factor...heavy ya' baby"), is an evocative recitation over gorgeous guitar melodies and chiming phrases. In "The Rocket" the band locks into a static juggernaut of rhythm while Verlaine throws up phrases that suggest a launching that the music never fulfills. Finally, in the album's closer, "Mars", the eerie mood of "Rhyme" and the B-movie clowning of "The Rocket" combine in a play of the funny and horrific that, when Verlaine suggests a cup of coffee, sounds like an audio snippet of Twin Peaks.      The singular peaks of the live show all came from Lloyd, whose solos still spin off his fingers like sparks of blood from the whizzing some bionic dynamo. Onstage at the Academy Friday night, Lloyd waited distractedly, sipping his drink while Verlaine extemporized new lyrics to "Rhyme", transforming the record's sinister/sexy atmosphere into goofy/lewd comedy. Then Lloyd zoomed in like an arrow to a sunburst of electric melody, and just as suddenly receded into his own lovely lead theme. As if finally muscling past Verlaine's more fluid virtuosity, Lloyd now turns his solo spotlight into a stage-stealing, show-stopping climax at will. But it's also as if in winning a 15-year cutting contest he arrives to find Verlaine's s imply sidestepped the challenge. Always playing every string a tightrope, every note a footfall closer to safety or danger, Verlaine now suggests a Kaleidoscopic high-wire choreography - dramatic slips and slides, spins, leaps, tip-toed passages, and wobbly plunges where balance and gravity no longer seem to apply.

     Neither Verlaine nor Lloyd has released a domestic collection of songs in five years, and nothing from either's solo catalogue was included live. In fact, only one song, "Glory", from Adventure, and one cover, an obscure Chocolate Watchband tune, weren't from Marquee Moon or Television. In linking classic material from their debut - a perfect "Venus", a newly fragmented "Marquee Moon", and an over-the-top-as-punk-era "See No Evil" - with most of the new album, Television emphasizes its hopes for an enduring second season.