This coming Monday (5/12), Television is playing at the Paradise Rock Club. So I figured, why not revisit the review that I posted on Amazon.com in February 2004? No reason at all!
A decade on, I would say that I stand by all that I wrote about this highly revered album. But remember, I was 10 years younger when I wrote about it.
Truly Unique, but Not Equally Great
This CD is difficult to review. For one thing, its reputation precedes it. It is universally hailed as one of the greatest albums ever recorded, so that might predispose the listener to read greatness into it. For another, it is difficult to classify. It has its moments of catchy songcraft, but it is certainly not pop. And it is NOT punk, neither in sound nor in attitude. At best, it is punk by association: Richard Hell (click for my review of his autobiography) was an early member, Malcolm McLaren offered to manage them, they played at CBGBs, the LP was released in 1977, Tom Verlaine wrote and recorded with Patti Smith, etc.
The whole of Marquee Moon generally does not follow any sort of obvious conventional structure, and it is more easily contrasted with than compared to other CDs of its era.
Finally, there is nothing obviously terrible about the CD, nor anything obviously and consistently great (except for the guitar work). So the album is very much a one-of-a-kind affair, and might be described as a warped sort of post punk or new wave. It is thoroughly unconventional without being particularly radical (although that may be a radical achievement in itself). However, uniqueness does not entail greatness, and in the case of Marquee Moon, the uniqueness is much more apparent than the greatness.
So what is it that is so great about this CD? Well, it is impossible to not be impressed by the inspired and majestic guitar work. Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine trade off of each other with intuitive artistic ease.
They might be accused of showing off because it sounds so good, but this is one of the least pretentious guitar showcases that I have ever heard. It is virtuosic, but in a professional, unflashy way.
One cannot help but feel that beauty and grace with the instrument just comes naturally to them. Snotty and snarling riffs, ringing arpeggios, bright cascading scales, and wild and crazy solos adorn every song on the CD.
Unfortunately, the guitar work is the best part of every song, and the other components suffer a bit at its expense. Tom Verlaine’s voice is not great, but it is at least nicely off beat and it suits the material well enough. But the lyrics are often a bit too obscure, and one must not mistake obscurity for profundity (which is largely lacking on this record). Verlaine may have been a poet, but he wasn’t a great one.
Moreover, the emotion of each song seems a bit calculated, but that may be, in part, a downside of the naturally good guitar playing.
Still, the lyrics to “Venus”, “Guiding Light,” and “Torn Curtain” are quite beautiful. And the title track is stunning.
All of that said, however, I would certainly not discourage anyone from at least listening to this CD. Its uniqueness is itself refreshing and rewarding to the patient listener. Moreover, the weight of its reputation is lifted by repeated listenings, and once that happens, the listener is able to hear it for what is it: a fine, ambitious, and largely unpretentious record. Some of the songs are better than others, but none of them sound out of place. The CD plays very well as a whole, and should be listened to in a single sitting. And the influence of the album’s NYC cool is plain to see in bands like The Strokes and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
BUT STILL, Marquee Moon‘s greatest asset is its uniqueness, and while that may not translate to an equal level of greatness, it still proves the validity of the effort.
And enough people have heard something all-around spectacular in this record, and it is worth taking the chance that you may be one of them.
(One last thing: There have been tests done in which each participant is shown three lines of obviously different lengths. S/he is asked to pick the longest one. When s/he picks the obviously longest one, s/he is told that most people picked a different one. Then s/he is asked if s/he wants to change his/her mind. Many participants do. What’s my point? This: if I were to call this CD “punk,” I would feel like one of the people in the study who changed his mind, i.e., like someone who said something he knew to be false just because everyone else did.)