Thursday, August 25, 2011

August 25: Tom Verlaine, "Penetration"

Artist: Tom Verlaine
Song: "Penetration"
Album: Dreamtime
Year: 1981

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Though one can easily name the handful of musicians that "the media" claims were the most important of any given generation, it is often those that are able to work out of such a spotlight that truly make the most impact on the direction of music.  Perhaps due to the fact that they are more free from the constraints of label pressure to make a certain sound, one can often trace the larger changes in music to the efforts of these individuals.  It is also such performers who seem to find new ways to deploy this sound, and whether it was with his band or as a solo performer, there are few musicians from the past forty years that are on the same musical level as Tom Verlaine.  Having honed his skills and made his name within the confines of the absolutely phenomenal band Television, following the breakup of that group in 1978, Verlaine set out as a solo artist, releasing a number of brilliant recordings that are clearly the logical progression of his previous bands' work.  Possessing one of the most distinctive guitar styles and singing voices, there are few musicians from any era that have proven to be as creative and truly unique as one finds all across Verlaine's work, and this exceptional talent came to a head in the form of his 1981 solo album, Dreamtime.  Though there is not a sub-par moment anywhere on the record, one can find everything that makes Tom Verlaine such an amazing artist on his 1981 song, "Penetration."

From the moment that "Penetration" begins, the sonic proximity that it has to Television's extraordinary 1977 Marquee Moon is apparent, as the song is based around a slightly stuttered, ringing musical arrangement.  Perfectly balanced between "art rock" and punk rock, "Penetration" has an tone that instantly grabs the listener, completely enveloping them in the sound.  The way in which every element of the song comes together on "Penetration" is far beyond that of almost any other Verlaine composition, and this is likely due to the fact that Verlaine himself plays both lead guitar and bass guitar.  This leads to an interlocked sound between the two instruments that has rarely been achieved elsewhere, and it is this duality that remains one of the strongest aspects of the song.  It is also the almost military-like drumming from Jay Dee Daugherty that makes "Penetration" so unique, as there are a number of different rhythms simultaneously at play.  Though they are slightly understated, the keyboard fills from Bruce Brody are as essential as any other aspect, enabling "Penetration" to have a full feeling that is far beyond almost anything else being recorded at the time.  It is the way in which all of these instruments play off of one another, giving the song a fantastic sway, yet retaining a unique edge that pushes it to such heights, making "Penetration" a song that can never be forgotten once heard.

Along with the link one can hear to Television within the musical arrangement, there has never been another voice that sounds even remotely similar to that of Tom Verlaine, and one cannot help but hear the connection to his former band.  This is in no way a bad thing, and it is the fact that Verlaine sounds just as good in this solo setting as he did with Television that proves his exceptional talents as a vocalist.  The almost detached, almost nervous persona that he perfected over the years it as its best on "Penetration," and even those unfamiliar with his work will be instantly drawn in by this stellar vocal performance.  Bringing a number of peaks and valleys in terms of vocal power, Verlaine is able to make the singing just as dramatic as the music, which further sets the song aside from others.  Yet much like his work within Television, on "Penetration," the high level of quality within the singing has just as much to do with his brilliant lyrics as it does with his voice itself.  While the title of the song certainly suggests certain meanings within his writing, there are a number of ways that one can interpret Verlaine's words, and one can cite these as some of the finest of his career.  From the sensual to the sorrowful, one can hear a wide range of emotions within the lyrics to "Penetration," and it is the way that Verlaine pulls the listener in deeper with each line that makes this such a wonderfully unique performance.

The end product of Dreamtime is without question an amazing effort, yet there are few records that have as troubled a timeline as one finds in the history of this album.  The initial recording sessions for Dreamline were largely lost due to low quality reel-to-reel tapes, and more than half of the record had to be re-recorded after the fact.  Due to this, there are two almost completely different band lineups on the record, and this makes the overall consistency of Dreamtime even more impressive.  While former bandmates from Television appeared on the record, it is also filled with members from Patti Smith's band, whom Television had toured with in their final years.  Yet all of these difficulties and differences only prove the talents of Tom Verlaine, as one would be hard pressed to find a more enjoyable and appealing record than Dreamtime, and the album easily holds up as the decades and musical trends pass.  The music has an absolutely full sound, and yet on many levels it is a rather stripped-down approach, and there is no other group in history that has shown such an ability to strike this balance.  Furthermore, the unique vocal approach of Tom Verlaine, though often copied, has never been equaled, and it is his singing that keeps the song exciting even after hearing it countless times.  Though the record itself is absolutely flawless, there are few songs in history that are on par with Tom Verlaine's marvelous 1981 song, "Penetration."

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