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