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Music Review: Tom Verlaine – Dreamtime and Words from the Front

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Of all the major bands to come out of the CBGBs Era, it was Television who remain arguably the least fully appreciated. Despite releasing two magnificent albums of guitar-driven art-punk (Marquee Moon and Adventure), the New York band never passed into the MTV circle of their peers in Talking Heads or Blondie, for instance.

Perhaps lead guitarist/singer Tom Verlaine's introvert nature kept the band from pushing themselves as a commercial entity (no Big Suits for our boy!); perhaps it was their record label's unwillingness to push a singer whose crooning style was at least one yelp higher than early David Byrne. Whatever the reason, Television's inability to rise out of cultishness remains a great what-if? question for the band's admirers.

Once the group disbanded –- and its dual guitarists Verlaine and Richard Lloyd went their separate solo ways –- it was clear these guys would carry the mantle of Criminally Unappreciated Critic's Darlings in perpetuity (though Lloyd would etch out a nice little career doing guitarwork for the likes of Matthew Sweet and John Doe).

For members of the cult, though, the recent reissue of two of Verlaine's post-Television releases, Dreamtime and Words from the Front (Collector's Choice Music), is good news indeed. The latter disc, in particular, has been too long M.I.A. Though some fans consider it the least successful of TV's albums, in a lot of ways it's his most consistently accessible.

But let's start with the earlier of the two new reissues, 1981's Dreamtime. Recorded with two different backing units (members of Patti Smith's group, the Dictators and, of course, Television among 'em), in part because a tape snafu ruined some of the earliest finished recordings, the disc sounds more cohesive than it perhaps has a right to do. Of the two reissues, it's closer to Television in sound -– particularly in those moments when Verlaine guitar duels with future how-to music writer Ritchie Fliegler, who brought a bracing sixties sound to the party (I assume he's responsible for the Bryds-ian guitar on "Mr. Blur").

While some of the fun gets lost in a muddy Stones-y mix (perhaps to match the "Jumping Jack Flash" homage of "Future in Noise"?), the results remain inventively clamorous in all the right places. Even the goofy placeholder instrumental has its charms.

To these ears, though, the highlights are those tracks which move furthest away from his old band: "Always," with its ringing chorus and Talking Heads-like admonition to "Think it over," and the concluding slow number, "Mary Marie," which deserves to be recovered by some thoughtful band of modern alt-rockers. With its hints of early R&B balladeering, it serves as a good lead-in to Verlaine's next solo release, Words from the Front. Produced by Jimmy Rip and featuring members of new wave R&B-er Mink DeVille's band, the disc is a polarizing one for many of Verlaine's fans, though to these ears, it surpasses Dreamtime in more than one track.

Admittedly, the disc sounds less "underground" than its predecessor, less like something conjured up in the middle of the night within a dim studio. Soon as the opener, "Present Arrived," kicks in, it becomes obvious that this will be a sonically friendlier album (much as Television's Adventure was to debut release, Marquee Moon), though a careful listen to Verlaine's always well-crafted lyrics reveals an ongoing theme of separation and loss throughout the disc.

"Postcard from Waterloo," arguably one of the impeccably constructed pop songs in the singer/guitarist's repertoire, tells the tale. The romantic story of a couple about to separate (perhaps the war-torn narrator of "Words from the Front"?), it hangs on a mournful guitar line and an exquisite chorus. Another song that deserves to be reworked by some smart pop-rocker, methinks.

If the bulk of Words sounds commercially constructed ("Coming Apart" even possesses the rockin' rhythms of a Steve Miller track), the album's finish, "Days on the Mountain," throws a curve at the listener. A throwback to the days of extended psychedelic jams, it's embellished with some of Verlaine's most Jerry Garcia-esque serpentine improvising –- and the sudden injection of a quasi-Oriental motif that adds to its echoing mystery. It's a surprisingly trippy move but an effective one, the guitarist taking his listeners on an ascent to the sublime. Though most of his admirers knew he was capable of reaching musical divinity, few of 'em would've wagered that it'd sound quite like this.

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.