Around / Songs and Other Things
D / D+
re we ever justified in giving an artist a pass based on past glories? Many (including me) would assume this is a non-question: that a crappy new album from someone who used to be compelling is no better than a crappy new album from an unknown. And yet the mere fact that these two new Tom Verlaine albums come to you from Thrill Jockey, and not from Verlaine's basement, is testament to the fact that our instinctive response is missing some factor.
So let's bring up Marquee Moon. Not because either of these records sound anything like it, but because when people hear the name Tom Verlaine, Marquee Moon is what usually springs to mind and vice versa. We can't escape context, in music as in everything else, and although it would be weird and unnecessarily cruel to expect everything Tom Verlaine does to even approximate Television's debut—its stellar songcraft, the way the band played as if in possession of a single mind—the fact remains that nearly all the attention Around and Songs and Other Things will get is down to those 45 minutes Verlaine helped create in 1977.
And to be blunt, neither of them deserve a tenth of that exposure. It's not often I hear music that actually makes me contemplate the waste that goes into all of these CDs, liner notes, and jewel cases. Songs and Other Things is the more egregious waste of your time; guitar fanatics won't find anything approaching the divine fireworks of “Little Johnny Jewel” or “Marquee Moon,” or even “Elevation” and fans of Verlaine's Television-era storytelling will be disappointed to hear him so simultaneously unchanged and unforthcoming. Except for the occasional dip into hushed, inscrutable muttering he sounds the same as he ever has, and the most his songwriting makes itself noticeable is when it gets annoying as on “Shingaling” or “Lovebird Asylum Seeker.”
There is one almost-exception; the penultimate “The Day on You” manages to build up a bit of a hypnotic sway in its first three minutes before breaking for a nice solo from Verlaine and then returning to the calmly repeated refrain. It's a pallid kind of success that relies almost entirely on the drunken, almost sitar-sounding refrain in the background, but after the rest of the album and especially the pro forma choogle of “All Weirded Out” it's the undeniable highlight of Songs and Other Things.
Around at least has the distinction of being wholly forgettable. Fully instrumental, it betrays a certain debt to anyone from the Durutti Column to Bark Psychosis in places. If you're a serious fan of Verlaine's guitar playing Around might actually be worth it, as it certainly has plenty of that, although nothing as immediately striking as the masses of people who've only heard his highlights might picture. It's a mostly quiet, subtle album, the kind you'd put on for a lazy evening of avoiding work.
So from the hands and heart of an unknown Songs and Other Things and Around would register as disappointments or maybe showing the slightest of potential, but from someone of Verlaine's stature and access (Thrill Jockey may not be the biggest label in the world, but without the marquee value of Verlaine's name I doubt they'd be touching these records) they're a lot worse. Whether or not it's true, here he sounds like he can't be arsed to make something compelling, and that's unfair to both him and his audience.
Listen to sound samples from Songs and Other Things here.