Tom Verlaine- Dreamtime

23 09 2008

Released: July 1981

Track List: There’s a Reason, Penetration, Always, The Blue Robe, Without a Word, Mr. Blur, Fragile, A Future in Noise, Down on the Farm, Mary Marie.

Overview: Dreamtime was the second solo album to be released by musician Tom Verlaine, late of the seminal Velvet Underground-inspired art-punk group Television. Television was critically acclaimed and legendary in Punk circles but didn’t sell much, plus the band just wasn’t big enough for the egos and creative ambitions of Verlaine and co-guitarist Richard Lloyd, so they split up in 1978 and Verlaine released a self-titled solo album in 1979, which came out on Elektra and didn’t really cause much of a stir.

Track By Track:

THERE’S A REASON: “Reason” ushers in the album with a staggered, slashing guitar lick that is soon joined in lockstep rhythm by another set of chords, and on top of the whole thing Verlaine sings, in his gulping, Ric Ocasek-like voice about a love interest which fascinates and frightens him all at once. The slight chorus (“You’re my thrill, my dear/but I can’t keep still, I fear”) benefits from a slight rhythmic change which provides a moment of calm before we go back into the rollercoaster of cacaphonic guitar/bass/drums. This track is a real smorgasbord of different guitar sounds; it’s as if Verlaine intends to serve notice that he was gonna play a whole lotta guitar this time out. He didn’t really, as subsequent tracks bore out, but there is a lot of great work just the same, especially on this cut.

PENETRATION is a reggae with a slight 50’s slant to the melody and a distorted clutch of guitar notes accompanying each repetition of a bridge in which he repeats the chant “Deep pulsation/deep penetration”. Lyrically, it seems to be about performance anxiety of a kind, with fear, unease and dread forming a theme which seems to run throughout the whole album with very few exceptions. I’m not usually a reggae fan, but this track does skank along quite agreeably and provides a nice contrast between the chaotic opener and the next track.

ALWAYS begins with a driving drumbeat and a slashing duel between Verlaine’s guitar and Donald Nossov’s bass, and continues on in this vein until the chorus, when it’s joined by chiming piano notes, almost achieving a Springsteen-ish effect, albeit Springsteen produced by John Cale. Essentially a love song, with the singer pleading for understanding and attention from his object of desire, it rides a relentless groove all the way until the fadeout which features some astringent, ringing guitar licks.

THE BLUE ROBE is essentially an instrumental, with a Beefheartian rumbling beat from drums and bass, and Verlaine spraying licks all helter-skelter, singing “Hi-Fi” at the 2:28 mark.

WITHOUT A WORD is another atmosphere piece, a story-song about someone named Laura who seems to be dealing with an unspecified heartbreak:

I’ve been given a fortune
a fortune in lies
so spoke Laura
as she closed her eyes
One by one
the lights are going out
Names are forgotten
There’s darkness in the house

It’s also got one of the more conventional song structures on the album; minor-chord notes and a verse/chorus/verse/repeat chorus until fadeout. Compared to the fireworks on the previous songs, it’s a bit of a letdown but is still a strong enough track with a decent melody.

MR. BLUR seems to find Verlaine snarking anonymously at someone, Lloyd perhaps? Anyway, it’s got a fuzz-tone stop-and-start riff at its center and is driven along nicely by the bass and drums into a relaxed, but insistent beat. Again, nothing really explosive as far as guitar fireworks go, but it’s a catchy tune just the same, almost Cars-like.

FRAGILE brings us back to the unease with a chorus that states

Fragile/Handle with care
I’ve got to face what’s never there

again, the bulk of the lyrics are directed to another affection object, and there’s a feeling of missed connections and miscommunication. Early verses are sung against Byrds-like chiming guitar notes that seem to work against the beat; the chorus, and the second set of lyrics are at a sped-up tempo. It’s an oddly-structured song that works well in spite of this.

A FUTURE IN NOISE has Tom casting invective at a “Graduate of the Reemco School of Numbness…(who) walk(s) in here with your fifteen degrees”, some music biz type I’m sure that drew his scorn. Someone more knowledgeable about Verlaine and the Televison story could perhaps cast more light. Anyway, this is another guitar showcase track as it opens with that classic Television guitar/bass/drum interlocked, dueling structure, and rocks on throughout, especially in the sections in which he sings “I’ve gotta keep about a mile from you…arm’s length, that won’t do” against a pounding tom-tom beat. Verlaine does some magnificent, delirious rave-up licks as the song fades out.

DOWN ON THE FARM is once again back in reggae territory, as Verlaine basically says “I’ve paid my dues, now will you love me like I love you” in a fashion that sounds kinda creepy as sung in his voice. Anyway, it gets away from the reggae beat only on the chorus, as he repeats “Long and lonely years…down on the farm” against a backdrop of guitar pyrotechnics. For some reason, this one reminds me a bit of similar stuff XTC was doing at this time.

MARY MARIE is a gorgeous, atmospheric song with a Duane Eddy-style lick and some felt-more-than-heard organ as its foundation. Mary seems to be a young lady who is determined to carry on despite long odds and no support, and a sympathetic Verlaine works the farm metaphor again in support of this idea. The arrangement builds into a sway-along tempo at the chorus, providing outstanding dramatics throughout. Verlaine once more plays confident guitar solos, especially after each repetition of the chorus and as the song works towards the fadeout. This one’s pretty much my favorite track on the album.

Outro: The record-buying public was slightly more receptive for Verlaine’s sophomore effort- according to Wikipedia it did chart at #177 on the Billboard Pop Charts, something I don’t think his other albums did. Myself personally, I had only read about Televison and Verlaine in CREEM (and was intrigued by Christgau’s remark in his review of the self-titled debut that Verlaine played guitar “…like Captain Marvel”) until pre-Nashville music biz fame Bill Lloyd, who worked in a Bowling Green record store in the early 80’s, recommended this one to me. He was far more attuned to the Punk and New Wave sounds than I, and I knew that he knew whereof he spoke, so I bought it and took it straight home to listen, and was captivated immediately by “Always”, after kinda-sorta liking the first two cuts. Thereafter, I had this one on constant rotation on my turntable. The next year, though, I bought its follow-up Words from the Front, and was very disappointed- the tracks on that one were nowhere near as strong as the ones on Dreamtime, and I lost interest a bit after that, even though I did get the next three releases Cover, Flashlight, and the instrumental Warm and Cool, all of which were better than Words and strong albums overall, Television’s classic Marquee Moon and its underrated, if fractious follow-up Adventure, and the self-titled debut, which didn’t make much of an impression although I didn’t hate it. Television reformed in the mid-90’s, and I duly picked that one up as well, but by then I had lost my enthusiasm for Verlaine’s music and haven’t picked up anything since. He’s continued to record and perform, and I understand some of it is quite good- maybe one of these days I’ll get around to giving it a listen. One thing is certain- I’ll continue to play Dreamtime as much as I’ve played it in the last 28 years, which is to say very often.

Here’s a comprehensive site with a ton of info on both Television and Verlaine.


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6 responses

24 09 2008
Phil O.

“Without a Word” may sound conventional because it had been written 7 years earlier as “Hard On Love” for Television — same song, different words. A studio demo and various live versions of “Hard On Love” float among collectors. (Similarly, “Postcard from Waterloo” on WORDS FROM THE FRONT was also derived from an early Television song).

DREAMTIME never grabbed me like Verlaine’s debut — the dense production does many of the songs a disservice — but it’s full of strong tracks, especially “Always”. A mid-90s CD reissue also included the 12″ mix of “Always”, which is a bit longer and probably superior. That same reissue also included a version of “The Blue Robe” layered with surreal, spoken lyrics by Verlaine — interesting, but not superior.

I enjoyed your review. Thanks.

24 09 2008
jbacardi

Ah, I did not know that about “Word”. See, this is why I need the knowledgeable Television fans to help me out here! Not having been the biggest Punk and New Wave admirer back in the day, my knowledge of many of those groups is sometimes deficient. As I said, my knowledge of Television before the breakup is limited to listening to Marquee Moon and Adventure, and not really digging any deeper.

I often find myself getting attached to the first album I hear by a group or musician, the one I discover them by- which is perhaps the reason why I like Dreamtime more than the debut, which I didn’t hear until several years later. The debut is a solid album, though, and I like a lot of it.

That reissue is what I’ve been listening to lately, so I’ve heard those bonus tracks you mention. That version of “Always” is very good, but I don’t particularly like it better. As I do this blog, I try to stay with the originally released versions of the albums I write about, which is why I didn’t mention those cuts. There will probably be selected instances where I will, though…

Thanks for the comment!

2 10 2008
brendan

Funny, I only had this out for a listen (on the old vinyl even) the other day. This has long been a favourite of mine, and as someone who’d been a big Television fan from the out, I remember not liking Verlaine’s solo debut much. Dreamtime seemed to be where he finally “arrived” as a solo artist, and I love the diversity of mood & sound, and the sense of exploration on this album.

And the blog itself is a great read, for sure.

5 12 2010
jimmiek

I have always loved this album, ever since I bought it on cassette. Like you, “Mary Marie” is my favorite track. I would love to find the music for it somewhere. Verlaine’s solo just jumps out of the background in all of its melodic glory, and the lyrics are probably his most emotionally generous on the record.

21 05 2012
Carl John Hall

Love your review, although it is The Reemco School of Numbness.

22 05 2012
jbacardi

You are correct, sir! Duly noted and changed. I didn’t have the lyrics handy when I typed that, as I recall.

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