Overlooked Gems of My Lifetime

Credit is given where credit is due regarding the overlooked gems of my lifetime.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Tom Verlaine, Dreamtime

If they're being honest with themselves, fans of Television likely have mixed feelings about the work of the band and its guiding force, Tom Verlaine, past their remarkable debut album, Marquee Moon. I know of only two people who think the band's follow-up album, Adventure, was anything but a tepid letdown. I know a few people who find merit in the band's s/t "comeback" album from the early '90s, but I've never been able to listen to it past a few introductory spins following its release. It was as if Verlaine and guitar sidekick extraordinaire Richard Lloyd put saltpeter in the food of the band's previously distinctive rhythm section, Fred Smith and Billy Ficca, so the recordings would have a more reserved, "contemporary" appeal. Where were those warm bass fills and the off-kilter crashes? But there I go straying from this blog's extremely positive objectives again! Before I return to accentuating the positive and giving credit where credit is due, I must raise the interesting belief that one friend holds, that the entire story had been told - great story that it was - by the end of side one of the orginal vinyl album release (ie, through the title track for those of you who have not experienced the joys of flipping an actual album over).

I raise these doubts because there's one solo Tom Verlaine album, Dreamtime, that both meets the high, visceral bar set by side one of Marquee Moon while satisfying what I will only assume was Verlaine's vision of a more ascetic, crystaline setting for his music, as hinted at on side 2 of Marquee Moon. Despite some high marks from the usual suspects, Dreamtime was fairly overlooked in its time and is all-but-forgotten (and out of print) today.

The album opens with the furious stomp of "There's a Reason", featuring all the unique guitar and rhythmic interplay that sold us from the opening measures of ""See No Evil". Here, however, the lurching, rhythmic riffs do more than update the debut-album rockers' melding of gleefully stoned, mid-60s Rolling Stones singles and the Beatles's "Paperback Writer". Verlaine has taken the fencing feats of even the song "Marquee Moon" to a level previously unheard in in his oeuvre (sorry, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to use that word). Despite the snaky singing, the stinging guitar leads, and all the other stuff that screams ROCK 'N ROLL!, it's the sound suggested by the Lou Reed album title Metal Machine Music more than that of a rockin' band. This quality is carried through the rest of the album to great, pre-crappy-'80s-production-techniques effect.

The album's second track, "Penetration", completes the template of thrusting repetitive rocker followed by elegant mid-tempo number, as established by the first two Television albums. Again, however, the jangly elements of this Dreamtime equivalent to "Venus" and "Days" are lacking in the warm and fuzzies that kept Television's experiments with one firm foot in the traditional rock soil of Woodstock, Monterrey, et al. The song moves along in detailed, dispassionate increments, with only the slightest release during a jaunty dual-guitar break. I keep thinking, whenever I play this song, that although I will never form as emotional and personal an attachment to "Penetration" as I do to "Venus", it all makes sense in the artistic direction that Verlaine initially launched. He was headed this way, as the third song, "Always", a bit of a chilled, nasty rocker along the lines of "Friction", also tells me. And so on...

It may seem like I'm selling Verlaine short on this album by identifying these templates and patterns, but I do think there are artists who can spend a lifetime honing a small set of clear ideas. Not every artist can move comfortably from "Love Me Do" to "Help" to "Strawberry Fields" to "Cold Turkey", and not every artist needs to move in a line that shows such clear "progress." I've got a handful of other Verlaine albums, and they all have their moments, but no other one seems as focused on his small set of clear ideas. No other one seems to pick up the thread, and despite efforts every few years to see what the guy might be up to (eg, producing demos for Jeff Buckley, guesting on Patti Smith recordings, composing music for films), I can never tell if he even possesses the thread these days.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Andy Bresnan

Philadelphia's multi-instrumentalist/conceptualist extraordinaire Andy Bresnan has added color to the music of Butterfly Joe, Baby Flamehead, and his ancient band Junior Mints, for whom I served a year's residence, doing things like laying on stage and fretting chords on my electric guitar while the hulking Bresnan kneeled over me and played the strings with timbale sticks. As the artistic director for the multi-media Big Mess Orchestra, Bresnan allows himself plenty of room for combining the highest and lowest of arts. If the world knew of him it would be awaiting the album I personally aniticipate, the one of familiar if otherworldly instrumental ditties that best reflects giddy nights spent in his presence, listening to a wide assortment of off-kilter tunes and even learning to heartily appreciate Frank Zappa's Uncle Meat album. Meanwhile, the guy hasn't been wasting time. I would suggest you prepare for upcoming Christmas seasons by purchasing the Big Mess Orchestra's holiday-themed Have Yourself as well as the group's first, self-titled album, featuring originals and enlightening covers. Keep an eye on this guy!

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Match Game

A couple of times a week, while flipping channels, I come to a screeching halt whenever I have the good fortune to find a Game Show Network rebroadcast of the greatest game show ever, Match Game.

We will review some of the reasons why I consider this the greatest game show ever, but the primary reason - and the reason why it is featured as one of the Overlooked Gems of My Lifetime - is that it is the one tv show that best captures my state of mind as a young adolescent on a day off from school.

With few goals ahead but the of eating an entire Entenmann's banana crunch cake, I'd plot down in front of the tube and prepare for a half hour of mindless, racy, pseudo-celebrity-panelled, game show entertainment. This was in the days when pseudo-celebrities nobly strutted their stuff on game shows, variety shows, and comedy roasts. These shows required talent. There were no quick cuts to Elaine Joyce canoodling with Nipsey Russell, no staged hissy fits by Joyce Bulifant. Pseudo-celebrities had to stand - or more likely sit - and deliver, often in the company of regular folks, the game-show contestants. When do you see pseudo-celebrities joining forces anymore with regular folks? But I digress.

There was only so much of this good stuff on in the morning before the 6 stations we received (remember getting no more than the 3 network stations, PBS, and 2 or 3 UHF stations, those of you old enough to have lived before the advent of cable?) were inundated with mostly unwatchable stuff like soap operas. The best of this good stuff was Match Game.

I could describe the rules of the game, but why bother when you can simply click here to refresh your memory or learn about them for the first time? What really made this show click were the regular cast of characters and the set itself. The set had all the requite multi-tiered panels, spinning contestant desks, pop-up question cards, and carnival-like lighting. From certain angles, the rows of lights seemed to hint at the Confederate flag. I'm sure this meant nothing, but then what would the Web be with pointless asides like this?

Host Gene Rayburn was lanky, sported a huge overbite, and yet was somehow kind of handsome, in a goofy Count Dracula way. Among his talents and tools, including the use same half dozen lame voices (eg, doddering old man, Bela Lugosi, fat-cat Texan...) he'd use while reading the questions aloud to the contestants and panelists, Rayburn carried the most distinctive wand of a microphone. Did any fan of that show not long to weild that mic wand? I know I did.

The regular panelists were Brett Somers, Charles Nelson Reilly, and Richard Dawson, who would branch out as a successful game show host himself (Family Feud). Frequent participants included the aforementioned Russell and Bulifant, Fannie Flagg, Betty White, Marcia Wallace, and an ace '70s game show host (eg, my second favorite game show, Tattletales) in his own right, the exquisitely coiffed Bert Convy.

It was always fun to see which panelist a contestant would bond with as he or she moved along in the game. It still is! Certain panelists seemed especially good at providing matches with contestants. Brett Somers obviously put a lot of effort into her answers, and the ladies couldn't help but rely on the relatively suave Dawson. Charles Nelson Reilly (notice: you can't just refer to him or Brett Somers by their first or last name alone), on the other hand, seemed like he was crocked and couldn't give a shit about anything but wisecracking with Rayburn and his fellow panelists. But that was cool too. I get the sense that a lot of partying went on during that show. You don't get that sense these days, on pseudo-celebrity vehicles (Taradise excluded), when even the pseudo-celebs have personal trainers.

I'd like to say the show allowed you to see "another side" of its pseudo-celebrities, but so few of them had a "side" outside the game show/variety show/comedy roast circuit. Prime-time panelists like Betty White and Bill Daily had already mastered their comic personae, so you couldn't say they were "letting their hair down." Nevertheless, they gave it all they had. This may be what it's all about here on Overlooked Gems: Giving it all you've got! I ended 2005 in a bit of a funk regarding the power of these Gems to communicate, but the time I've spent thinking about Match Game has revitalized me. If you're not doing so already, do yourself a favor and tune in the Game Show Network for a few episodes of this show. Maybe like me, you'll find yourself sitting in your favorite seat with a feeling of true contentment and simple joy.