Rock Review: Tom Verlaine Gets Down to Basics at the Bowery Ballroom
Published: May 20, 2006

Tom Verlaine's music lives in the interstices: the rhythmic spaces between beats, the modal inflections within tonality, songwriting that lingers between genres, and lyrics that sketch the gaps between real and surreal. At the Bowery Ballroom on Thursday night, starting a two-night stand, he was calmly mesmerizing, filling his songs with slinky suspense between the lines.

In a career that dates to the mid-1970's, Mr. Verlaine hasn't radically changed what he does. He writes unhurried songs that usually have graceful, wiry guitar parts and a drone at their core, with lyrics about the beauties of disorientation and drift. Folk-rock, art-rock, post-psychedelia whatever they are, they're his. This year Mr. Verlaine simultaneously released his first solo projects since 1992: "Songs and Other Things" (Thrill Jockey), which provided material for the Bowery Ballroom set, and "Around" (Thrill Jockey), a set of instrumentals that wanders from mantra-jazz meditations to rock to hints of the Caribbean.

Mr. Verlaine's band Television, which reunites sporadically, played regular gigs at CBGB in its earliest days. He shared the punk urge to strip music down to essentials. But his essentials were not what came to be known as punk-rock; they were more subtle and more open-ended. Like the jam bands many punks despised, Television and Mr. Verlaine's solo projects delve into the processes of music in the moment: the variations within a riff, the play of textures and tensions.

His current band, which is starting a tour, uses two guitars, bass and drums, like Television. It includes the stalwartly understated Fred Smith (from Television) on bass, the unshowy and robust Louie Appel on drums and Jimmy Ripp on rhythm guitar, who supplies each recurring riff for Mr. Verlaine to play against.

Mr. Verlaine's guitar leads didn't flaunt virtuosity by streaking above the beat. They tugged against it instead: lagging deliberately behind, clawing chords on offbeats, trickling around it or rising in craggy, determined lines. The music was also a play of guitar tones; Mr. Verlaine could sound rounded and bell-like or sharp and steely, and when he played linear solos, he used quivering inflections that hinted at both ragas and Celtic music.

Some songs expanded and mutated, like "Kingdom Come" from Mr. Verlaine's first solo album, in 1979. Its chunky rock beat and major chords dissolved into little trickling runs, returned more strongly behind a zigzagging lead, then kicked into double time as Mr. Verlaine's guitar pealed and scrabbled in a jubilant crescendo.

In a new song, "Shingaling," Mr. Verlaine and Mr. Ripp tickled high, darting variations and deep twangs over a Bo Diddley beat as Mr. Verlaine sang, "I remember when time was king/ Now it's just shingaling." During the generous set, it never sounded as if the songs were being stretched. Mr. Verlaine was just headed deeper inward, toward his kind of rock essentials.