Modern rock and roll, or "new wave" as it's reverentially called, essentially began in New York City, where it still makes quite a splash. It should not be confused with the British punk movement, which was inspired, ironically, by the Big Apple's own Ramones. New wave isn't really a musical genre but a catch-all term for what was, in the late '60s, more romantically labeled "underground rock," meaning music too radical for the gloss of Top 40.
As new wave becomes increasingly assimilated into the pop mainstream (Patti Smith, Blondie), it begins to sound less "new" and more referential. Conversely, two recent recordings by a couple of New York's most intense rockers, Talking Heads and Tom Verlaine, illustrate how new wave can serve as musical discourse for challenging ideas.
Talking Heads is a quartet nurtured by academics -- three members met at the Rhode Island School of Design, while the fourth studied architecture at Harvard. Art-rock is scribbled all over their faces; in fact, the band's original name was the Artistics.
Still, although Talking Heads' sound echoes the free-form experimentation of late-'60s rock, there is nothing artsysmartsy about their first two albums, "Talking Heads: 77" and "More Songs About Buildings and Food." Any inclinations toward highbrow seriousness yielded to the tilt-a-whirl thrill of spontaneous turns and humorous twists.
David Byrne's vocals imitate Woody Woodpecker's hysterical laugh, and the band bounces with all the enthusiasm of the Little Rascals.
Talking Heads' music conveys a sense of community and patriotism -- the band seems to embrace any pop genre, from bubblegum to disco, simply because it's American. And like America, their music exists as a melting pot, usually friendly but always deadly earnest.
The band's latest album, "Fear of Music" (Sire SRK 6078), is the noise pollution that lingers after urban guerrilla combat. Like last year's "More Songs," it is also produced by the obtuse egghead, Brian Eno; unlike that album, though, it does not feature one song as tender and funky as their cover of Al Green's "take Me to the River," a Top-40 smash.
"Fear of Music" is a work about paranoia, violence, and terrorization; but more than that, it is a study in immobility."Mind," marked by no movement until Byrne's guitar hacks through the inertia, sounds like a cat fight in an alley. The undulating guitar riff on "Paper," borrowed from the Beatles' "Rain," grates the nerves like chainsaws. Sung from the isolation of a padded cell, "Drugs" releases total hysteria, as if the singer had every phobia imaginable locked inside his soul.
Panic in the year zero occurs on "Life During Wartime." In this postnew wave setting, Talking Heads issue an ultimatum -- "This ain't no party/This ain't no disco/This ain't no fooling around." On "Memories Can't Wait," the party, not allowed in a solemn world, moves to the mind. The song's poetic trance seems inspired by the phantom of Jim Morrison.
The album's best songs are truly transcendent. On "Heaven," the party never happens -- "It's hard to imagine that nothing at all/Could be so exciting, could be so much fun." Just as Richard Hell's "Blank Generation" became the cliche-anthem for the new wave, so "Heaven" could develop into the non-anthem of the current new wave.
Primarily due to Eno's production, the rapture of "Air," Ariel's anthem, remains breathlessly balanced between the hard chop of an axe and the fragility of a Ming vase.
But the most moving cut on "Fear of Music" may be the album's most inconspicuous moment. "Cities" transforms the void of modern existence into the excitement of urban coexistence through Talking Heads' skillful utilization of their handiest tools -- the communal pride of "More Songs" and the whimsical pirouette of "77."
Whereas Talking Heads' recent work is frighteningly psychotic, the new solo album by Tom Verlaine, "Tom Verlaine" (Elektra 6E-216), is rather soothing, almost mellow, in its calm glide toward introspection. This is not so suprising since Verlaine was formely the leader/guitarist/vocalist for the disbanded Television, often critized as the new wave's answer to the Grateful Dead.
Television's leader adopted the pseudonym Verlaine, not only in emulation of the French symbolist poet but also as a symbolic gesture, therefore sharing his band's initials, T.V., the medium of electronic vision. Television's music, as evidenced on the albums "Marquee Moon" and "Adventure," made "The Twilight Zone" seem almost believable.
Alone, Verlaine continues in the vissionary role; consequently, his album isn't much different than Television's third might have been.
Like a cobra about to strike, Verlaine's guitar coils and slithers beneath the musical surface only to attach suddenly without warning. Rooted in psychedelia, or acid rock, this style represents the meandering method of expanding one's consciousness. Side two of Verlaine's album especially is a showcase for his serpentine guitar. "Flash Lightning" could be a psych-out by any circa-"68 band from Mad River to the Electric Prunes, and "Breakin' in My Heart" sounds like a speedy version of the Velvet Underground's obscure "Foggy Notion."
"Souvenir From a Dream" exemplifies the visionary approach with suspended piano chords trapped within an ethereal chamber. It's perfect Halloween music, haunted by ghosts of a half-remembered hallucination -- "Cold hand on my shoulder/A star begins to beam/ That's when you saw it/A souvenir from a dream." In a similar vein, by alluding to both St. Paul and Sisyphus, "Kingdom Come" confronts the visionary's eternal predicament -- confinement to an earthly domain while one's thoughts contantly spiral heavenward.
Only on "Yonki Time," however, does Verlaine sharte his personal vision of rock and roll. The song is an odd collection of burps, coughs, random spurts of blues riffs, funky bass, howls, tinkling piano and mysterious muttering. Rhythmically, the song operates in the traditional framework of R&B convocations to dance (Alvin Cahs & the Crawlers' "Twine Time," Archie Bell & The Drells' "Tighten up"). Esthetically, through, it signifies cosmic disorder, total abandonment to one's senses and the imaginative leap few rock and rollers ever dare take.