Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Tom Verlaine - The Miller's Tale

The Miller's Tale: A Tom Verlaine Anthology (1996) ***

Verlaine's post-Marquee Moon career has been the definition of anti-climactic, perhaps proving that maybe Neil Young did have a point about burning out rather than fading away:  Tom didn't blaze out in a flame of idiotic punk "glory" like Sid Vicious or Johnny Thunders, but kept on plugging diligently along with a string of critically acclaimed solo albums throughout the '80s with his devotion to professionalism, craft, and surfeit of clear talent never wavering.  Which is exactly the problem:  Verlaine seemingly morphed into an Alternative Rock Eric Clapton, presenting a series of faultlessly professional and tasteful records that lacked excitement, blood, and soul.  What's baffling is how this is definitively NOT clear on the first of these two discs, which consists of a ridiculously smoking hot live date in 1982.  The ten songs culled from the live set (including a breathtaking 14-minute take of Verlaine's signature epic, "Marquee Moon," its very self) reek with the fluid assurance and hard, punchy drive of a highly polished garage band; it easily ranks in the top tier of classic rock live albums, and is essential, essential, essential listening for any fan remotely interested in the man and his music.  The tragic flaw is that in a non-overdubbed live setting Verlaine is revealed as the appallingly shaky vocalist that his natural voice is, but you're too often so distracted by what an amazing guitarist his natural fingers make him that you won't care....well, that much.

The vocals prove much more problematic on the second disc, which consists of eighteen selections from his career in Television (one each from Marquee Moon and Adventure; two from their 1992 reunion LP) and his solo albums.  One can easily envision nearly all of these tunes being vastly improved with the addition of a real vocalist, one whose throat doesn't constantly strain like a tomcat scratching against a chalkboard.  As you'd expect, most of the decent material is concentrated chronologically near the first half of the second disc, as slowly Verlaine's talent (like all rock artists) peters out over the passage of time.  He can get off some tightfisted rocket launcher rockers ("Grip of Love") as well as essay a few tender love ballads ("Foolish Heart," "Anna"), and comes with '50s bop, too ("Lindi Lu"), not to mention that lyrically and moodily his military history narratives can be somewhat intriguing ("Words From the Front," "Stalingrad").  But overall, I simply can't get into this music:  it doesn't move me, it doesn't excite me, it doesn't make me want to sing or dance, it doesn't blow my mind with its brilliance, it's just there - a collection of paint-by-numbers pop-rock songs in the patented Tom Verlaine style that anyone familiar with the second Television album should expect with no surprises.  The pleasure I do get consists almost entirely of charting the twists and turns and flows of Verlaine's consistently interesting and ocassionally dazzling guitar runs.  So if you are a budding guitarist, up this grade a notch and transcribe the solos for your practice sessions. 

P.S. Tom Verlaine's real name is Thomas Miller, hence the title.

There are better songs, but this one's the only one I could find with an actual promo video!

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