Velocity Girl could very well stand as the poster children for the “indie, “or independent rock group of the 1990s. Their blend of kooky, ironic songwriting and punk-evolved noise, delivered by a quintet of devoted record collectors fully devoid of rock-star bravura, epitomizes the style of pop music beloved to champions of small labels. After cutting their teeth on a number of singles, the band made the move to the influential Sub Pop label to release their debut album Copacetic in 1993. Copacetic quickly became the Sub Pop’s biggest seller ever (surpassed only by Nirvana’s mega-selling Bleach). The band’s output since has varied in both reception and musical style, but throughout Velocity Girl has continued to expand the terrain of the catchy, three-minute pop song.
Formed around the University of Maryland in 1989, Velocity Girl, who took their name from an early B-side by the group Primal Scream, was originally comprised of vocalist Bridget Cross, bass player Kelly Riles, vocalist and guitar player Archie Moore, guitarist Brian Nelson, and drummer Jim Spellman. Cross soon departed from the group to join the eclectic outfit Unrest, but the remaining members quickly coaxed their friend Sarah Shannon to take her place and relocated to Washington, D.C. Shannon, a professionally trained singer, demonstrated a frail yet pleasant voice that would grow in range as Velocity Girl progressed.
Like most denizens of indie rock, Velocity Girl launched their recording career in 1991 with an onslaught of singles released only in a seven inch record format, often on highly collectible colored vinyl. With their seven inch single “My Forgotten Favorite,” released on Slumberland Records, Velocity Girl had produced an instant classic of noise-pop that provoked favorable comparisons to the heavenly, washed-out guitar sound of British titans My Bloody Valentine. Before too long, the early releases of the band, themselves avid record buyers, became sought-after commodities that fetched stiff prices in specialty shops. “It’s kind of flattering in a way to see that people would consider our records to be worth that much, but it’s also very embarrassing and sad to see them on walls,” guitarist Moore mused in an online interview. To remedy the situation, Slumberland later issued a six-track compact disc which compiled the band’s rare first offerings. Nevertheless, Velocity Girl remained true to their roots in spite of subsequent major distribution, and continued to release occasional gems in the seven inch format.
The band had planned on stating the course of being independent heroes, but when the Sub Pop label tapped the group to produce their debut album, Velocity Girl not only accepted the offer but signed a five-record contract. Sub Pop, with whom Velocity Girl had already recorded a one-off split single alongside the Virginia outfit Tsunami, had a reputation for signing purveyors of the more abrasive school of “grunge” guitar rock, and the choice of adopting Velocity Girl into their ranks signified a step in a new direction for the Seattle label. In addition, the explosive mainstream success of Sub Pop’s act Nirvana in 1991 gave the label a considerable amount of clout and visibility to offer their new addition. Heralded by the single “Crazy Town,” the album Copacetic hit record stores in 1993 to a generally positive reception. Highlighted by tracks such as the sarcastic “Pop Loser” and “Crazy Town,” the Bob Weston-produced Copacetic testified that while Velocity Girl was informed by the abstract, distorted sounds of guitar based bands like My Bloody Valentine or Ride, they were equally indebted to the less expansive legacy of tightly crafted bubblegum pop.
After playing a series of live dates with Tsunami and releasing a charming vinyl-only remake of the techno-pop favorite “Your Silent Face” by the band New Order, Velocity Girl created the second of their albums for Sub Pop in 1994. Entitled Simpatico!, the record offers even more in the way of catchy melodies and less of the wall of pure sound that marked the band’s earlier releases. Producer Bob Weston was replaced by John Porter, who had worked with the seminal British band The Smiths, and the group found a more focused, crafted sound.
Members include Archie Moore, lead guitar, bass, vocals; Brian Nelson, guitar; Kelly Riles, bass, guitar; Sarah Shannon, vocals; Jim Spellman,
drums. Bridget Cross originally supplied vocals, but left the group before any recorded output.
Velocity Girl formed in 1989 at the University of Maryland; released the classic single “My Forgotten Favorite” for Slumberland, 1991; signed five album contract with influential Sub Pop label and released debut album Copacetic, 1993; Simpatico!, 1994; announced plans of breaking up after their third album, Gilded Stars and Zealous Hearts, 1996.
Addresses: Record company —Sub Pop, PO Box 20645, Seattle WA 9S120
Many fans and critics lauded their creation. “As on Copacetic, the textures are heaped on, but the musical lines are less runny, the riffs are sharpened, the hooks grab tighter, and the vocals skate out front,” wrote critic Kim Ahearn in Rolling Stone magazine. “Velocity Girl have hit their stride with Simpatico! If this band continues to clarify and expand its sound, it may just redefine what it means to be indie.” If this redefinition did not take hold overnight, Velocity Girl certainly passed muster in mainstream critical publications, such as Stereo Review, who gave the album’s opening track “Sorry Again” a nod for best single of 1994.
However, in spite of the strength of the record, as well as singer Shannon’s much improved voice, some diehards felt that the smoother direction of the band meant compromising the unpolished, raw nature of independent music. Whether fueled by a bias against sugary melodies or by noise-rock purism, such responses had been foreseen by the band, as voiced by Moore in an online interview. “We’re not afraid, but we’re anticipating that a lot of indie-type people are going to think that it’s a sell out kind of record or whatever. In complete honesty, it’s the sort of record we’ve always wanted to make and if our other records didn’t sound like that it’s because we didn’t know how to make them sound like that.”
If Simpatico! represented a balance of sonic distortion and hummable refrains, Velocity Girl’s third album, Gilded Stars and Zealous Hearts, began to fumble towards less inspired slickness. While the tendency towards pop had been one of the band’s chief distinctions, on prior releases it had been tempered by experimental dabblings which were sorely needed on Gilded Stars. Additionally, the indie-based backlash towards excessive production values may have begun to hit home on the outfit’s third album. Whereas Copacetic and Simpatico had been created in studio-bursts often and twenty days, respectively, Gilded Stars’ production time was spread across seven weeks under the direction of high-profile engineer Clif Norrell and the spontaneity of earlier records gave way to an over-polished quality. Although the album was not a disaster by any standards and was not without appeal, it was given a lukewarm reception from indie and mainstream critics alike, such as Entertainment Weekly’s Michele Romero, who could find only “a few sprightly, memorable melodies featuring happy, strumming guitars behind boy-girl harmonies.”
Ironically, while many reviewers and listeners found Gilded Stars a disappointment in terms of songwriting, Velocity Girl themselves thought the album stood as a sign of achievement in tunes and musicianship. “The playing for all the members has risen to a great degree,” bassist Riles averred in an online interview. “Everyone’s more confident on their instruments, there’s more stuff we can do, and we can do it more purposefully.” The disappointing results of the record may in fact have stemmed from a growing disinterest within the band itself. Key songwriter Moore had been diverting his attention towards his side project, the Heartworms, who released the album Space Escapade in 1995, and singer Shannon became preoccupied with her forthcoming marriage. In 1996, Velocity Girl announced that it would break up, but a final word has not been offered. At any rate, given the typical convoluted family tree of the indie band in general, it is a safe bet that the members of Velocity Girl will continue in a similar vein through other incarnations.
Velocity Girl EP, Slumberland, 1993.
Copacetic, Sub Pop, 1993.
Simpatico!, Sub Pop, 1994.
Gilded Stars and Zealous Hearts, Sub Pop, 1996.
Audio, June 1996.
Entertainment Weekly, March 22, 1996.
Interview, June 1994.
Rolling Stone, July 14, 1994.
Stereo Review, July 1994.
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