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Monday, October 01, 2007

Return Trip

Television
Television
(Capitol ; 1992)


It's been over 30 years since the birth of American punk rock, and this year in particular is an important one as it is the 30 year anniversary of the release of a slew of vital records from that era. 1977 was an incredible year for music and certainly one of the most celebrated albums of that year, and that time, is Television's debut, Marquee Moon. Like nothing else of its time (or anything after, really), Television carved out a distinct place in the pantheon of punk; a place that has remained unquestioned for the years that have followed. Their first two records, the aforementioned Marquee Moon and 1978's Adventure, are canon beyond reproach, and their inability to stay together for the purposes of any more music at that time has always seemed like a loss.

Back in the early 90s, in the wake of Nirvana's breakthrough (maybe we have a thread in these Return Trip articles), there seemed to be a larger cultural awakening and, perhaps, a hope that more inventive music might fall on more sympathetic ears. It seemed like a time that would engender some success for bands that had given up the ghost in their prior run at fame. So Tom Verlaine, Richard Lloyd, Fred Smith and Billy Ficca gave it another shot, reuniting for this self-titled album.

If you're a fan of the band's 70s work, but this self-titled reunion record doesn't ring a bell, I'm not surprised. The band managed to commit the cardinal sin of recording an album that was a relative let down compared to their, by 1992, well worn and well recognized landmarks. The task of re-visiting this record is a tricky one - how do you critically look at the record without holding it up against its mammoth predecessors, yet still recall the band's earlier work in order to point out its qualities? Let's see if this works.

The album opens with "1880 or So," a song that in its melodic simplicity recalls a more stripped back version of Adventure opener "Glory," and this is a welcome sound for sore ears. Truly there are a handful of moments on this record that sound, songwriting wise, as if the band was picking up near where it left off in 1978. "Call Mr. Lee" recalls the cool vibrancy of songs like "Foxhole." Other songs seem to take the old template and move forward with them - "Shane, She Wrote This" has the dashing guitars and detached word-play; "No Glamour for Willi" chimes and plots like a disillusioned sequel to "Carried Away."

But the weaknesses are obvious, and it starts with the adjective that keeps coming to mind to describe large portions of the album - sterile. As much as Tom Verlaine was a master of cooly detached and surrealist/urban lyricism, Television's music always held a warmth that made it approachable. Of the three studio albums Television put to tape, Television is easily the hardest for listeners to approach. There aren't a lot of openings into the music without having already had the gateway of the first two records. Songs like "The Rocket" bash along without seeming to go much of anywhere - juxtaposing less sensical lyrics with some guitar workouts. As much as the guitars were one of the defining things about Television, they weren't the whole show. And they can't carry some of the weaker songs on this album. Others take the jazzier fringes of Television's music, something Verlaine had explored more in his solo work, and runs with them, resulting in the cloying "Beauty Trip," a song whose lyrics are as mediocre as the music under them. "Rhyme" is one of the few successful stabs at newer sounds on the record - with its atmospheric, slow and hypnotic feel, it gives Verlaine's vocals a chance to rumble and mutter their way over top, painting a scene more vivid than truly meaningful.

A band attempting to capitalize on its signature sound 14 years after their last stab at doing so is rarely a winning situation. And with Television there wasn't going to be any recapturing of the magic of 1977. But I doubt that was truly the idea in the first place, otherwise this would probably sound more like the true heir to Adventure than it ultimately does. While by no means a necessary piece of the Television puzzle, there are enough tracks worth hearing (and hearing repeatedly) to make it an adequate, if ultimately unsatisfying, addition to their body of work.

Rating: I(nteresting)

(Rating Scale: A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y)

Judge for Yourself:

Television - Shane, She Wrote This

Television - Call Mr. Lee

Television - No Glamour for Willi



Download some additional Television, including a live album from the 1992 reunion tour, over at EMusic.

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