Ancient Egypt
5 Hours From Calais
Fontana (UK), 842 420-1, 1990

Tom Verlaine: Guitars, solos and vocals
Jimmy Ripp: Guitars
Fred Smith: Bass
Andy Newmark: Drums
Bruce Brody: Keyboards

Three years after "Flash Light" comes "The Wonder", an album which, inexplicably, didn't even get a release in the US.

No lyric sheet, either, but this isn't such a problem as the first thing that strikes you is the vocals which are higher in the mix, clearer and more relaxed than ever before. For the first time on a Verlaine record the voice comes across as another instrument rather than just a necessity. The Wonder contains Verlaine's most attractive singing, his voice captured from the croak to the faslsetto. The result is that this collection has a new intimacy and warmth. Having said that, there is still that self-mocking tone to some of the vocals which throws both the lyrics and their musical setting into sharp relief.

Hardly looking back to "Flash Light" at all, "The Wonder" is bright and sharp and closer in tone to "Cover", if anything. There's less emphasis on the glorious massed sound of electric guitars and more on the sound of the song. Which is not to say that the Verlaine guitar magic is missing, it's simply quieter and more concentrated. In terms of song structure it seems the least unconventional of his albums but the music itself is as individual and unmistakable as ever. Guitars and keyboards construct sometimes fragile frameworks for the lyrics and weave textures through them over intricate, seductive rhythms. The guitar playing mostly sounds restrained, held tightly in check, so that the songs hold their own internal tensions. It may be Verlaine's most 'careful' guitar playing in the sense that it's the shape of each song that lingers in the mind. On the surface it can all seem simple and straightforward until you listen more closely to what's going on, how it's being done.

It's a collection of smart, lyrical, sparkling pop songs, punched along and anchored by some superb drumming and scattered throughout with moments of beauty and fascination. "August" is busy with cross-playing guitar runs and textures over simple drums and bass. In "Ancient Egypt" the guitar solo is gloriously wild and at odds with the rest of the song in which Verlaine manages to sing, straight-faced, "I've been working/I've been chopping wood/And this makes me a hungry man". In "Stalingrad" there's a sense of the absurd juxtaposed with a sense of order. "Cooleridge" bursts into outbreaks of fractured guitar and "Shimmer" does exactly that. And there's one more lovely ballad/love song, "Prayer", with a genuinely affecting lyric, washes of keyboards and backing vocals. Or take "Cooleridge" - a great Tom Verlaine song with stinging guitars, snarling guitars, soaring guitars, a quirky vocal and who the hell knows what it's about? I mean, what more do you want?

Great cover, too.