Another Spin: Tom Verlaine – “Dreamtime”

I’ve been very fortunate as of late when it comes to finds in the bargain bin. I’ve been able to walk away with Paul McCartney’s Ram for insanely cheap, and mix that with the brilliant Moby Grape self-titled album in the same spot. I found Dave Von Ronk’s great 90’s collection of odds-and-ends, Going Back to Brooklyn, for dirt over at Kim’s. But the best find is one that flies under radar, and that distinction belongs to the newly relocated Earwax Records in Williamsburg. I’ve never been a fan, frankly, due to their tendency to overprice for both new and used records, but their bargain bin contained a gem I’ve been desperate to find ever since committing to my love for Television since their eponymous third album. While Television certainly had it’s flaws, I am willing to look back on it fondly at times, and even, maybe, find the need to go back and redo my own review of that record. But there’s a missing link between Television’s second album, Adventure, and their third. That missing link is somewhere in Tom Verlaine’s solo records, and there is no better individual link than his second solo album, Dreamtime. 

After the Jump: TV’s greatest hit.

When you open up a rag like Guitar World or Rolling Stone when they go about having the gumption to list ‘greatest’ whatevers, chances are, you will see the names of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd low on the list of ‘greatest guitar players,’ or individual moments, or songs written to emphasize the guitar, or whatever. But when it comes to all-time great “guitar” albums, I guarantee you Marquee Moon will appear in the top five, if not the top three. There’s a complicated history that has been detailed for record on just what Tom Verlaine’s approach is as a guitarist, let alone as a lead guitarist, or even as a songwriter. What’s generally agreed upon is that he’s somewhat of a perfectionist after a very specific image and sense. I would expect no less of a man who decided to name himself after a French symbolist poet, and a man whose preferences for guitar-set ups include Fender Jaguars or Jazzmasters, with no distortion, and — without boring you with the details — tends to do everything he can to make a guitar sound as full as possible, but with the naturalistic twang that comes out of Surf Rock-typical scales in a context completely removed from the easily scorned surf-rock context.

Nowadays, Adventure has become far more accessible than it once was, thanks to the internet, and people are far more aware of the role Tom Verlaine has played in rock’s late 20th century history, despite never making a much larger name for himself in the United States. Still, his fairly prolific career in the 1980’s and the early 90’s resurgence of Television has given more opportunities to look to him as a guitarist and songwriter, separate from the personality and intentions behind the band he founded alongside Richard Hell.

If you’re into Television’s fairly (but not extensively) documented history regarding Tom Verlaine’s sonic preferences, you can tune into Dreamtime and pick out a song or a lick that belongs in Television’s penchant for the guitar sound minus any of punk’s typical accouterments. “Without a Word” would probably stand out for its chord structure being so similar to Television’s demo of “Hard On Love,” and easily fall in love with it for recalling the original single being slowed down to 80’s R&B standards. “There’s a Reason,” the album’s just-below-fiery opener, has a riff that is typical of Verlaine’s rhythmic trickery that’s actually deceptively simple, especially when backed by a counter-active but organic second guitar. The solo has some of Verlaine’s trademark tricks, straight from Marquee Moon, but the difference here is that brevity is a goal, rather than a restraint. As a result, when moments of Verlaine’s trademark evocation of the musical sounds of a dream, they seem like rare gems compared to the constant hazy swirl typical of Marquee Moon and Adventure. Amazingly, there’s more angular attack that recalls the earliest demos of Television.

You could read that last sentence and think Verlaine may have been trying to reach back to the sound and approach to music that made Television such a beloved favorite in the early CBGB’s scene, before the Ramones, Blondie, and the Talking Heads were able to bring their CBGB-era success to the brighter spotlights of the national stage. Certainly, that maybe the case bringing back “Hard On Love” as “Without a Word,” easily the most ready to be a little-heard classic of the 1980’s pop.

I still hesitate to make this the case, because the songwriting here is also so much more diverse– as if all the individual borrowed elements of a single song in Marquee Moon‘s intricately collected-and-refracted influences were unfolded over the course of the ten songs on Dreamtime. Just check out the nerdy, Police-like take on reggae of “Penetration,” which ends in one of those classic explosion moments like the climax of an incredible sex dream — the grinding, distorted guitar of the chorus lets go to a sudden wave-crest and crash of pianos and cymbols a la “Love Reign O’Er Me.” “The Blue Robe,” an instrumental, struts and stops the way any Tom Verlaine guitar solo would, but has the consistent chug of any good San Francisco jam band of the late 60’s. The main riff of “Fragile” jingles like the best psychedelic pop riff (think: the Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction”)  slowed it down to a simmering pace that fits the song and Tom Verlaine’s speed well.  And in light of all of it, the songs that are simply stripped down, no-frills rock and roll, “Down on the Farm,” “Always,” and “Mr. Blur” (which sounds closest to something comfortable in Television’s wheelhouse), all reveal a surprising element: despite the obtuse lyricism and jittery guitar solos loaded with avant-jazz techniques, Tom Verlaine can write a pop song like the best of them. Not necessarily disposable catchy fun, but something that lasts by being just challenging enough.

Whether it was the intention to reach back to the style and approach that made so many declare Television as the next big thing thanks to their live shows from ’74-’76 or not, the craziest thing is that this album worked. No Television album had cracked the Billboard top 200 list, nor would any other by Tom Verlaine solo. Capping off at 177, this was Tom Verlaine’s big hit record in US. If you’re fortunate enough to find this album available on vinyl, I recommend you pick it up. It’s lightning in a bottle.

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