Tom Verlaine – Songs and Other Things / Around

Tom Verlaine
Songs and Other Things / Around

Musical preferences are, at the core, built on instant prejudices. No matter your liberal-minded openness to embracing all shades and stripes of the musical world’s tapestries, if something you’re spinning offends your ears’ instinctive filter mechanisms then often nothing – not even lustful critical persuasion – can stop you from turning away from it both mentally and emotionally. Whilst there are many component elements that our mind’s ear will eventually decode to defend its position, ultimately the most instinctual killer of musical passion is a dislikeable voice.

The sonic landscape is littered with singers that can switch people off to even the most melodic, most inspiring, and most inventive compositions. Thus, some will never appreciate a Bob Dylan album just for his nasal drone, others object unapologetically to Mick Jagger’s slurred Anglo-Americanisms, a dissenting few will forever loath Elvis Costello for his squashed bleating, and there are even those who can’t take Television’s pioneering art-rock solely because of Tom Verlaine’s adenoidal whine. Yes, ladies and gentleman, you’ve guessed it: your writer ashamedly adjoins himself to the latter example (latter two in fact, but we’ll leave Mr. Costello alone on this occasion). No matter the sonic stealth of Television’s lauded 70s epic Marquee Moon, to this listener’s ear drums, the grating tones of Mr. Tom Verlaine make him vainly wish for a remixed vocal-less version to be issued.

So why go to the trouble of taking on two simultaneously released solo Verlaine albums, his first in over a decade? Well, guilt has its part to play for sure. Naive hope too, perhaps, that time’s weathering wand could give Verlaine’s voice box some croaky charisma à la latter-period Johnny Cash. Certainly, though, Thrill Jockey’s masterful reissue of Verlaine’s ‘lost’ 1992 instrumental album, Warm And Cool, pleasantly provoked a late-blooming Verlaine appreciation.

Choosing to release one album of vocal material (Songs and Other Things) and another solely of instrumentals (Around) is an intriguing proposition to a dispossessed Verlaine observer, and it’s also a smart one. No matter how bad Verlaine’s voice can treat his songwriting, no one can really argue about his influential enigmatic guitar work. So, naturally Around seemed like the immediate attraction, but in the interests of objectivity, Songs and Other Things took the first play on the stereo.

Even with the benefit of the doubt, Songs and Other Things is still a largely dissolute affair. Musically, it clumsily clomps around an array of unappealing aesthetics, from lazy latter-day Lou Reedisms (“From Her Fingers”), wobbly crooner jazz (“A Stroll”), lumbering prog-rock (“Documentary”), clunky white-funk (“Shingaling”), and grizzly borderline goth (“Orbit”). Furthermore, although Verlaine has never been much of a poet, his lyrics are blunderingly cut to fit the spindly song structures, allowing some nonsensical gibberish to add to the overall clanger-quotient. Then there’s that voice. Any hopes of age agreeing with Verlaine’s larynx amicably are dashed by its degeneration into a slothful sneer, one that sounds like Tom Petty after an ill-fated vocal chord transplant from Marilyn Manson. Whilst Songs and Other Things may still attract loyal aficionados of Verlaine’s idiosyncratic solo work, it’s certainly unlikely to win over any sceptics.

Around, on the other hand, holds a much happier and deeper appeal, especially to followers of Verlaine’s Thrill Jockey labelmates. Expanding upon the aforementioned Warm and Cool long-player, whilst eschewing some of its Duane Eddy-style low-end twang, Around is a blissful antidote to Songs and Other Things. Bulked-up with short meditative – virtually unaccompanied – electric guitar instrumentals, Verlaine proves his metal as a virtuoso guitarist, almost the plugged-in equivalent to acoustic guitar-legend John Fahey on this occasion. There’s some light-heartedness too that shows Verlaine can be fun without being foolhardy, as with the calypso-like shimmy of “Meteor Beach,” the blues stomp of “Wheel Broke,” the bass-led Jah Wobble-ish “Balcony,” and the Tortoise-flavoured finale of “Rings,” which make greater use of his fluid ensemble. Whilst Around is hardly groundbreaking stuff – Verlaine’s retro equipment preferences automatically predicate a retro feel – it is a genuinely unforced unfurling of a reclusive talent and a worthy companion piece to Warm and Cool.

Whilst some may question Verlaine’s decision not to meld together the best bits of these two records into one consistent collection, at least he’s given us the clear option to take one (Around) and leave the other (Songs and Other Things) without too much crippling cogitation. Together, they prove that old age can be ugly as well as beautiful.