a parade in littleton
Thrill Jockey Records, Thrill 173, 2006
from her fingers
the earth is in the sky
lovebird asylum seeker
all weirded out
the day on you
Tom Verlaine: Guitars, vocals
Patrick A. Derivaz: Bass
Fred Smith: Bass
Tony Shanahan: Bass
Louie Appel: Drums
Jay Dee Daugherty: Drums
Graham Hawthorne: Drums
Jimmy Rip: Rhythm guitar
"Never said you were some fucked-up actor
but there is a hidden factor..."
Well, the news after a 14-year recording silence is that Songs and Other Things is not the greatest ever Tom Verlaine album, but it's not the worst either.
This is not Marquee Moon. It's not supposed to be (that was thirty years ago, remember?). Nor is it even Dreamtime - the best Tom Verlaine album. (Sure, you could argue with this and many would, in favour of the first, self-titled set. But they'd be wrong). It says right here on the insert: "recorded in and around new york city in the new century". This is a clue. After fourteen years it makes sense that it should look anywhere but back, right? Tom Verlaine has nothing to prove to you, or anyone else. There are enough guitar heroes around who heard it all here first.
Two things are immediately apparent about this album - it may be Verlaine's most playful set of songs (of course Tom has always been playful, it's just that no-one seemed to notice) and he's finally found his voice. I mean, literally. He's finally grown into the voice. Or become comfortable with it. In any case, his voice has taken on a depth, a maturity, and his singing sounds relaxed and, at the same time, more authoritative. Sometimes it kind of reminds you of Lou Reed, this half-spoken drawl, but old Lou hasn't had much to say for a long time - Tom sounds as if he has a secret or two to tell you and he's enjoying the telling.
These are songs which confide, cajole, persuade, the warmth of the vocals matched by the sensuous nature of the guitar work. You're teased with sound/sounds. Verlaine plays all the guitars and not for him the one signature tone. Instead there is almost an embarrassment of riches when it comes to guitar noises. The fluid chiming of The Earth Is In The Sky, the churning rhythm guitar of Heavenly Charm, the fabulous, lush guitar strength of Documentary, Shingaling, with its insistent, nagging spiralling guitar lines, the delicate picked figures of Blue Light....
Fourteen songs and only five of them over the four-minute mark, and most of them little gems of brevity, style and technique. The album is bookended by two instrumentals - A Parade In Littleton, which sounds exactly like that, and Peace Piece, a solo guitar track that sounds as if it drifted on over from Warm and Cool or, indeed, Around. The songs themselves on this album don't particularly sound like Tom Verlaine songs; which means that they come at you from unexpected directions and lead you to unanticipated conclusions. There's nothing here that would really sound at home on a Verlaine album from the 1980s. If I had to look back for a Verlaine reference I guess the closest one would be the collection on The Wonder but whereas that album was quite brittle in tone, this is thick and layered.
What is familiar is the sense of tension which threads through these songs. Of opposition and unease. This is created, in part, by Louie Appel's drumming - he's like halfway between Billy Ficca and Jay Dee Daugherty - but much of it is down to the sounds of the guitars and Verlaine's careful placing of these sounds. His guitar playing on this album is magisterial. Listen to A Stroll ("Hi baby, it's just me, I'll... call you later...") and the way that one deceptively lazy guitar follows the rolling drums while another darts and fades through the verses. Or The Earth Is In The Sky in which the guitar through the verses sounds hesitant and faltering, framing the plaintive vocal. There are no lengthy guitar workouts or knock-you dead solos but when the guitar does break free, as at the end of Nice Actress, you're reminded who you're listening to.
And, on Shingaling, he even manages to rhyme "fascination, fever" with "swim just like a beaver" and get away with it.
The least interesting (and most 'conventional') thing on the album is "All Weirded Out" (which had an early live outing back in the 1990s) and my favourite track is "The Day On You" which is propelled along by loping bass and tumbling drums until, after a short spoken section, guitars spin around each other in a knot of muted tones. It's a perfect Tom Verlaine Moment, and it's wonderful.