One advantage of the spluttering proliferation of punk rock and the continuing failure of the New Wave to do anything more than lap at the bottom of the American charts is that you can relax and enjoy a group as a band, not a brand. Since there’s no longer a single standard to bear or conform to, no mushrooming movement to augment or betray, it’s no skin off anyone’s nose if Television, which virtually invented CBGB’s, pays tribute to — you’re not going to believe this — the Turtles.
Yes, the merry martial beat and blithe vocal harmonies of “Careful,” on Television’s second album, conjure up those folk-rock fatties of the Sixties. “I don’t care” is the song’s refrain, and the words are neither snarled with Johnny Rotten’s defiance nor deadpanned with the Ramones’ parodistic dumbness. It’s just that the singer’s in bed with his baby, and the rest of the world is out of sight (if not entirely out of mind) behind a drawn shade. What, me worry?
And Television is free enough to sound like the Byrds, whom the serene circularity of “Days” evokes with almost ethereal grace. “Turn! Turn! Turn!” enters the postpunk era.
By daring to be different, Adventure lives up to its title, but it also comes as something of a disappointment because it lacks the jagged tension and mysterious drama that imbued last year’s Marquee Moon with such dark but lucid power. Marquee Moon celebrated friction, and Richard Lloyd’s rhythm guitar fairly grated against Tom Verlaine’s more lyrical lead playing. The music is dreamier and much more benign here, more apt to charm than to challenge. Instead of baying at the moon, Verlaine often yelps like a puppy. On “Carried Away,” his vocal veers uncomfortably close to something you’d expect from Keith Carradine.
A line from “Carried Away” runs, “I felt the old ropes grow slack,” and there is a certain slackness to much of Adventure. Coproducer/engineer Andy Johns gave Marquee Moon the hard, gleaming edge of an obsidian knife; the duller sound on Adventure, credited to John Jansen, whets but does not satisfy the aural appetite. Thus, “Ain’t that Nothin’,” a potentially devastating rocker that crosses the Rolling Stones with what sounds to me like Argent’s “Hold Your Head Up,” kicks harder in the memory than on the turntable. The songwriting could also be sharper. “Foxhole,” for example, is commonplace both lyrically (an antiwar stance) and musically (heavy metal).
Tom Verlaine remains, however, a unique and masterful guitarist who doesn’t play lines so much as shape them with a sculptor’s deliberation. A connoisseur of timbres, he draws on everything from a Middle Eastern jangle to the blues to a crystalline tinkle to achieve — on a song like “The Dream’s Dream” — an encyclopedic but unified grandeur.
As a whole, Adventure lacks such unity. Like the Jam on its recent second LP, Television seems to be in a state of transition, extending and then repeating itself. Some of the old ideas are exhausted, while some of the new ones aren’t yet fully realized, and at times they jostle each other awkwardly. But the growing pains augur well.