Once out of time, always out of time: In 1977 the stunning ice-blue guitarchitecture and defiant spirit of free-jamming wanderlust on Television’s debut album, Marquee Moon, blew wide holes through cream-puff AOR rock and the already calcifying primitivism of punk. Fifteen years later, in a guitar decade awash in thick distortion and truncheon riffing, the reunited Television comes in colors — pastel strumming, deep purple vibrato, sunrise orange chords — and celebrates the lost virtues of precision, emotional depth and sonic elegance.
The schematic remains the same. Guitarists Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd uncork spectacular, interlocking riff spirals and spin into heated solo orbit over Fred Smith’s bulwark bass playing and drummer Billy Ficca’s firm, earthy cadences. But the spaces they’ve mapped out are dark and tight, full of claustrophobic menace. Combining the focused songcraft of the band’s second album, Adventure, with Marquee Moon‘s flair for guitar melodrama, Television is rich in twang noir — meticulous weaves of pithy guitar agitation and stately sleight of tune underscored with Verlaine’s Sahara-dry wit and that unmistakable death-rattle choke in his singing. In “Call Mr. Lee,” Verlaine sounds like a snickering Peter Lorre, his voice dripping with con-man smarm and I-spy mischief (“Just one trick and/You’re sweet for life/Help me out, plum blossom”), as Lloyd’s guitar skids through the choruses in a cat’s cradle of hairpin turns. And “1880 or So” is an even more sinister beauty, the guitars’ crystalline ping and Verlaine’s polite Victorian love-speak (“Rose of my heart, the vision dims”) belied by the darker obsession encoded in his parched vocal and Lloyd’s solo outbursts.
Television‘s unexpected emphasis on restraint and layered meaning makes it hard at first to give yourself up to deviant surprises like the droll tangle of “Beauty Trip” or the opiate syncopation of “Rhyme” and “Mars.” Actually, the ’92 model Television is like a twin-guitar version of those Bulgarian women’s choirs, a model of complex, unaffected modal and melodic networking dramatically resolving into angry tremolo shivers, star-burst power chords and languid states of grace. One minute you hear Duane Eddy; the next, John Cippolina; the next, a kinder, gentler Hendrix.
But you hear it all as Television, orchestrated with impeccable clarity, sensual vigor and a gift for breathtaking understatement. In “No Glamour for Willi,” the laughing sound of Verlaine’s wah-wah break neatly mimics Willi’s playful insistence that her love has no price (“My preferences, dear, are/Mostly half-price/A four-leaf clover might be nice”). It’s a small moment but one that defines Television‘s slowly unfolding pleasures so well — all, in turn, rooted in the greater pleasure of hearing guitars speak in tongues, not just fuzz. As Verlaine puts it, perhaps a little floridly, in “Shane, She Wrote This”: “Sisters rejoice, strum the big minor chord/With wildly impassioned delight/Rapture is mine now as I behold/All turning holy and bright.” It was worth waiting fifteen years.