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* * * * Great Balls of Fire * * * Good Vibrations * * Maybe Baby * Running on Empty : : VERLAINE'S VISIONS

July 26, 1987|RICHARD CROMELIN

* * * "FLASH LIGHT." Tom Verlaine. I.R.S. It must be lonely out there for Tom Verlaine, the only bona-fide guitar hero produced by an underground rock movement that has an innate distrust of creatures like guitar heroes.

Verlaine always gets credit as a pioneer--his band Television is invariably mentioned when ticking off the crucial groups of the '70s new-wave upheaval--and he gets respect for his integrity. Credit, respect and a quarter will buy you a cup of coffee. How about a career for the guy with the deepest eye sockets in rock? "Flash Light" is Verlaine's first album in three years, and it was out as an import for a while before he was recently picked up by I.R.S. Maybe the so-called alternative market that's gained strength since '84 will finally be enough keep him afloat.

"Flash Light" is the guitar heaven that his fans expect. Teaming with second guitarist Jimmy Ripp, Verlaine performs a tireless fretboard decathlon, one minute riding a modal scale with the scrabbling energy of a Persian oud, the next evoking chattering teeth and shaking bones. His strings alternately sound like greased line and red-hot wire, and at times he reminds you of a renegade scientist dropping explosive pellets into a volatile brew to see what happens.

It's all direct, ungimmicky playing--real, live, basic electric guitar, and it sounds like something the boys could be throwing down in the back room. For all the formality of the song structures--bassist Fred Smith (from Television) and drummer Allen Schwartzberg usually lock into strict, martial patterns--a sense of intuitive interaction among the musicians creates a liberating looseness, whether the moment is intensely lyrical or hard-rocking.

But these songs are more than showcases for technique. They're powerful mood-inducers, knotty excursions into a hard-boiled rock- noir territory. The sound this time is hard-edged and angular, with less of the ethereal atmospherics Verlaine sometimes favors.

He sings in a casual, conversational, Dylan/Lou Reed mode, and while his dry voice isn't always up front, it's especially engaging on "At 4 a.m.," a Tom Waits-like narrative set to a mandolin-spiked folk-country tune--the Band by way of the Velvet Underground.

On the album jacket, Verlaine's lyrics look more like prose, and it's remarkable the way his music shepherds them into the patterns of the songs. Oblique and evocative, Verlaine's dialogues and contemplations address the perilous passage of feelings from heart to mind to mouth. He's always coming up against the limits of expression, grappling with the inadequacy of words.

That's when he pulls out the guitar. . . .

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