As a guitarist, Tom Verlaine is a poet. We have known this ever since his band Television issued “Little Johnny Jewel” as a two-sided single in 1975. (This is included on the reissue of Marquee Moon; if you haven’t listened to this CD in the last week, go pull it out or steal it and listen to it as loud as you can right now and then come back and read the rest of this review. I’ll wait.)
(Okay. Let’s continue.)
Of course, for most people, Verlaine ceased to be when Television broke up after their second album. But we faithful groupies have been ingesting solo albums for many many years. Some of these have been sublime guitar-based dreampop, and others have been all-instrumental, like 1992’s Warm and Cool, which was re-released last year by Thrill Jockey. Now, that label gives us a new no-vocal disc from Verlaine, who uses Patrick A. Derivaz on bass and his old Television bandmate Billy Ficca on drums. While it has some limitations, Around has more beauty, mystery, grit, and good humor than just about anything else you will hear this year.
These 16 compositions are split between ambient pieces and “real” instrumental songs; Verlaine is just experienced enough to know how to mix it up without it sounding like a formula. The straight-ahead things — well, nothing’s really straight-ahead here, but we’re talking relativity — are easy enough to follow, even when they combine Afro-beat guitar and surf music drumming, like “Meteor Beach”, or when they pull from country and blues phrasing, as does “Wheel Broke”. The real standout in this mode is the long closer “Rings”, which does sci-fi things over Ficca’s New Orleans second-line drumbeat, as Verlaine plays over and against and with himself here, to epic effect.
The ambient pieces do not work as well for me, but not because they are ambient; they just seem too formless and toothless compared to the other tracks. There is no end of loveliness in these pieces, as a single listen to the moody “Shadow Walks Away” or the drone-folk “Mountain” will tell you. But too many of them are too short. “Flame”, for example, peters out just as I want it to catch fire, and “A Burned Letter” only ever gets warm. Verlaine is one of the few musicians in today’s music scene who actually knows how to build up tension and drama over time, and to hear him try to force his big feet into two-minute shoes is painful.
But if the record is somewhat frustrating as an intensive listen, it works stunningly as music to have on when you are doing something. Then, these moments of shocking gorgeousness (“The Suns Gliding!”, or the opener, “The O of Adore”) will break through whatever murk might be clouding your brain, and show you some kind of weird unspeakable Buddhist truth. Or something like that. Anyway, it’s damn good to have Tom Verlaine around again, even when he’s just noodling around.