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Crafty guitar work, oblique lyrics add up to a meaningful disc

Tom Verlaine -- Songs and Other Things.jpg

Television guitarist Tom Verlaine‘s first solo recordings in 14 years will give his fans reasons to rejoice.

Around (Thrill Jockey), his first collection of instrumentals since 1992’s Warm and Cool, was reportedly recorded in two days. The second release, Songs and Other Things (Thrill Jockey), is consistent with the creative niche Verlaine has carved for himself since his salad days with Television (1975-78).

Songs is one of his strongest solo efforts, on par with 1986’s Flashlight and his self-titled debut in 1979 (which yielded the tune “Kingdom Come,” later covered by David Bowie). Many of the tracks on Songs sound like they could have been cut during the songwriter’s heyday in the late ’70s or early ’80s, but were actually recorded (according to the sparse liner notes) in “the new century.” It is to Verlaine’s credit that he makes the tunes sound fresh and new.

The lyrics are strikingly oblique; the guitar work is strenuously crafted. The vocals are delivered with an occasional sneer or taunt reminiscent of Lou Reed, or in a delicate tone, with an almost precious self-admiration for the fragility and vagueness of the phrases being strung together. This is most evident in “The Earth is in The Sky,” a surreal love song in which the narrator is obsessed by a woman (“there is no word for you that is not praise”). He cannot communicate his desire, which takes the form of “a bird/as red as blood/on a breaking branch.” He thinks things through, admits that he has not said much, and confirms that “when next we meet I’ll untie this tongue of mine.”

Most of the songs may be interpreted as love songs, in the same sense that Salvador Dali was a landscape painter. The territory that Verlaine covers is as strange and haunting as a dream that remains in your subconscious long after you have awakened. The tone is mostly self-confessional, like pages plucked from a dream journal.

The songs appear self-explanatory in the context of Verlaine’s universe. “From Her Fingers” is about a man enchanted by a woman who has “five rivers coming from her fingers.” Ants on a table spell out the words “be realistic” on “Lovebird Asylum Seeker,” and the narrator of “All Weirded Out” just “can’t find his head.” Lyrics such as “excuse me if I grovel and beg/I’m all twisted, and that’s just fine” (on “Heavenly Charm”) are delivered like a note from a psychotic stalker.

“Shingaling,” which seems like a throwaway song, contains some of Verlaine’s best guitar work, enhanced by some fine drumming by Graham Hawthorne; the quirky, jazzy beat and the passionate, repetitive guitar patterns give credence to the simplistic lyrics: “I remember when time was king/now I just want to shingaling,” the narrator intones, content to just enjoy his life, unrestrained by thoughts of commitment to time, or the outside pressure to use it wisely. This seems to be as close to a statement of Verlaine’s approach to his music as the listener will likely get.

The longest and best track on the disc is “The Day on You,” another expression of love heavy with symbolism. The sitar-like guitar lead and Hawthorne’s meticulous drumming produce a trance-like groove that weaves its way like a vortex around the lyrics: “like a golden crown/the day comes down/down on you/the day wears you like a golden gown.” (It is no coincidence that Tom Miller of Morristown, N.J., changed his surname in homage to the French Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine.)

With a world tour in full swing this summer to support his current albums, there is satisfaction in knowing that Verlaine still can produce a meaningful effort, even if the meaning can sometimes be lost amidst the stirring brilliance of his signature guitar playing.

— By Donald Gavron