J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Return Trip:
Velvet Crush - Teenage Symphonies to God

Velvet Crush
Teenage Symphonies to God
(Epic ; 1994)

Pity the bands that end up as also-rans in a genre that doesn't really make it big in the first place; namely, the 90s power-pop revival. The Velvet Crush is a band with almost every bit the power and pizazz of kindred bands like Teenage Fanclub, the Posies, or even late 90s practicers like Semisonic and Fountains of Wayne. Yet they haven't tasted nearly the amount of severely limited success that most of those bands have had (ignoring the occasional "Closing Time" and "Stacy's Mom" that momentarily made the latter two household names). They aren't even often brought up in discussions of the genre despite a pretty solid oeuvre. Their sophomore effort, Teenage Symphonies to God, alone should merit them a place at the table, but it hasn't happened yet. All the right things are in place: a really accomplished power-trio with a worthwhile debut album already under their belt; a brilliant producer in the guise of Mitch Easter; a Brian Wilson-referencing album title; the requisite Byrds/Big Star/60s pop influences that are obvious in the compositions; an astonishing cover song. From the cover art and photos ("custom-engineered for a full range of audio experiences") to the production quality and instrumentation, this is about as pure a power-pop homage as you'll find from this period.

The decision to hire Mitch Easter as producer for this album was obviously well thought out. Famous for his production and/or engineering on REM's Chronic Town EP and Murmur LP, several LPs by Paisley Underground stalwarts Game Theory and records by his own indie-rock group Let's Active, Easter had an obvious ear for the jangly, ringing tone that best suited the Velvet Crush. The album is warm and homey, sounding as close to a vinyl record as you can get with digital sound.

The songs are almost uniformly excellent - opening with "Hold Me Up," a song that would've given Teenage Fanclub a run for their money, its surging, easy-to-sing chorus and warm background harmonies anchoring the power-chord music beneath. The follow-up, "My Blank Pages," ups the ante, cranking up to 11 with its searing guitar solos and chugging riffs. A fantastic double-shot of power to open the record.

An underlying theme to the album comes out in its first cover, a gorgeous take on Gene Clark's "Why Not Your Baby." The Byrds influence is obvious throughout most of the record, but it becomes all too obvious when they cover a song by one of the Byrds' founding architects. "Why Not Your Baby" is a heartbreaking song, made all the more so by the sorrowful pedal-steel and other string instruments that accent the latter half of the song. Its slower, more maudlin mood takes away some of the thunder built in the first two tracks but sets listeners up perfectly for the divine "Time Wraps Around You," arguably the album's finest moment. It is as good a song as it is because of its sincere singing, enthralling, picked melody, and the fact that it doesn't sound so much like direct ode as modern interpretation. It's one of a handful of songs on the album (in addition: "Faster Days," "Star Trip") that escape slavish devotion and truly begin to reflect the songcraft of the band's writers.

The connection with fellow power-pop devotees shows up with a take on a Matthew Sweet song, "Something's Gotta Give." The song, never recorded by Sweet and to this day only appearing here, sounds like an outtake from Sweet's then-still-a-year-off album 100% Fun. It sounds like a Matthew Sweet song, and the Velvet Crush give it a thorough going-through, even giving it a minute-plus guitar workout at the end alá the author. Velvet Crush drummer Rick Menck would drum on several of Sweet's studio albums, so whether this was a payback or just friends exchanging material, it's a great addition to the album.

As much as the Byrds play a heavy hand in this record's structure, Big Star rears its head a time or two ("My Blank Pages," "#10"), and touches of other 60s pop flourish in the crevices of nearly every track not mentioned and plenty that were. Only "Weird Summer" stands as a misstep, its chorus limp and uninspired given verses that serve as one of the band's more dead-on Byrds tracks. But it's followed by the aforementioned "Star Trip," a song that finds its feet so brilliantly in its chorus and bridge, that all doubts about the previous song are erased. "Star Trip" would have been a perfect album closer, but the band tacks on "Keep On Lingerin'," a song that revels in the band's obvious country leanings for a last, short ode to their heroes.

While not quite as all-powerful as its contemporaries, Teenage Symphonies to God is a worthy addition to the pantheon of Bandwagonesque, Frosting on the Beater and even albums that are out of its league, like Matthew Sweet's masterpiece, Girlfriend. You are guaranteed to find at least half the album to be jaw-droppingly catchy - songs from it easily finding their way into a permanent rotation in your head. The Velvet Crush continues to make really solid records to this day (including 2002's Matthew Sweet produced Soft Sounds), but this album, sadly out of print, will almost certainly be their legacy.

Rating: A(udiophilic) / E(xcellent)

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

Decide For Yourself:

Velvet Crush - "My Blank Pages"

Velvet Crush - "Time Wraps Around You"

Velvet Crush - "Faster Days"

Find a used copy of Teenage Symphonies to God at Amazon.

Download practically anything else by the Velvet Crush at EMusic

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  • At 10:14 PM, December 11, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    you sir, are correct. AND all of the Velvet Crush albums are fantastical.

  • At 10:24 AM, November 08, 2011, Anonymous Dig Me Out Podcast said…

    Check out a podcast review of Teenage Symphonies to God by Velvet Crush on Dig Me Out at digmeoutpodcast.com, a weekly podcast dedicated to reviewing lost and forgotten rock of the 90s.


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