A melodic power-pop trio in the same vein as Matthew Sweet, the Smithereens, and the Replacements, the Velvet Crush draw from the soft and strong embellishments of the Byrds, Moby Grape, and the Beach Boys of the 1960s, yet they have also developed their own distinct sound. “Most guitar-based pop bands are really safe,” the group’s drummer, Ric Menck, told Rolling Stone magazine in December of 1992. “We didn’t want to be that, because we all grew up listening to punk rock and the Beatles and Big Star.” Critics as well recognized the distinction between Velvet Crush and their predecessors. “Obviously, Velvet Crush is composed of devout, old-school power poppers who have done their homework and have exquisite taste in influences,” noted Stereo Review writer Parker Puterbaugh in a review for the band’s acclaimed 1994 album Teenage Symphonies to God. “At the same time they bring something fresh to the formula, and their enthusiasm shines through in track after delectable track.”
Before joining forces for Velvet Crush, founders Ric Menck on drums, and Paul Chastain on vocals and bass, pursued the pop formula separately in different parts of Illinois. Menck, regarded as one of pop’s truest believers and a devoted follower of Brian Wilson, Alex Chilton, Roger McGuinn, Ray Davies, Pete Townsend, Phil Spector, and other legends of the two-minute single, followed the path of his idols not with a piano or guitar as do most songwriters, but from behind a small drum kit, making his keen insight into the pop style all the more intriguing. Although the Illinois native could play both guitar and sing, he rarely did so in public. Menck first served as one-half of a band called the Reverbs with vocalist John Brabeck. The duo released one album in 1984, the seven-track, power-pop effort The Happy Forest, which made little impact due to poor production and Brabeck’s colorless vocals. Meanwhile, Chastain worked on a career of his own around. His first venture was as a soloist, arriving with a 12-inch vinyl EP in 1985. Although a brief effort, the six-track record and original song entitled Halo earned favorable attention for its brushes with R.E.M. and the Beatles, as well as for Chastain’s singing ability.
Declining to continue on with the Reverbs, Menck worked under the name Pop the Balloons with future solo artist Adam Schmitt for a brief time, then the trio Choo Choo Train with Chastain and guitarist Darren Cooper in the late 1980s. In 1988, the group released the EPs Briar Rose and High, both compiled for the eleven-song Briar High in 1992, in spite of Menck’s strong objections. Although Menck and Chastain had moved on to Velvet Crush, Briar High documented the duo’s early Anglo-pop obsessions with light, yet well-informed tunes such as “Flower Field,” “When Sunday Comes (She Sighs),” and “My Best Friend.” Songwriter Jeff Murphy, vocalist and guitarist of the Illinois band Shoes, guested for the song “Every Little Knight,” while Menck made a rare appearance singing lead on “Big Blue Buzz” and “Wishing on a Star.”
Moving to Providence, Rhode Island, in 1990, Menck and Chastain concurrently retired Choo Choo Train to form a more serious group with guitarist Jeffrey Borchardt, a Wisconsin native who had played in the White Sisters and later led the group Honeybunch. As the Velvet Crush, the trio debuted in 1991 with two EPs, Ash and Earth and The Soul Crusher e.p., followed by their first full-length album, In the Presence of Greatness, produced and recorded on an eight-track machine with friend and fellow pop musician Matthew Sweet in his living room. A critical and college listener favorite, the trio’s introduction saw Velvet Crush embracing pop music as a living ideal, not as a convenience, a religion, or for nostalgic refuge. As Ira Robbins noted in the March 5, 1992, issue of Rolling Stone, the trio’s spirit “is wholly current, an informal sense of pop tradition unpolluted by nostalgia.” And in December of that year, the same magazine named In the Presence of Greatness “the year’s most addictive masterpiece—equal parts perfect harmonies and hopelessly ragged innovation.” Revealing a steady flow of top-notch pop, Velvet Crush’s debut album included highlights such as “Drive Me Down, “Ash and Earth,” “Window to the World,” “White Soul,” and “Blind Faith.”
Members include Jeffrey Borchardt (born in Wisconsin; former member of White Sisters and leader of Honeybunch; left band in 1998), guitar; Paul Chastain (born in Illinois; former member of Choo Choo Train; recorded as a solo artist; played in Matthew Sweet’s band), vocals, bass; Rie Menck (born in Illinois; former member of the Reverbs and Choo Choo Train; played in Matthew Sweet’s band), drums, occasional guitar and vocals.
Formed band in Providence, RI, in 1990; released debut album, In the Presence of Greatness, 1991; released Free Expression without a record company contract in 1999.
Addresses: Record company —Bobsled Records, P.O. Box 6407, Aurora, IL 60598.
The Velvet Crush borrowed the phrase “Teenage Symphonies to God,” coined by Brian Wilson to describe his inspired work with the Beach Boys in the mid-1960s, in naming their next album. However, 1994’s Teenage Symphonies to God more followed the guitar-based pop of the Byrds, the Raspberries, and Big Star, as well as the country-rock influence of Gram Parsons. For the album, the Velvet Crush covered former Byrd Gene Clark’s “Why Not Your Baby,” performed a song written by Sweet entitled “Something’s Got to Give,” co-wrote a convincing country-soul song called “Faster Days” with Stephen Duffy, and crafted other original pop and country-inspired numbers such as the romantic folk-rock song “Weird Summer” and the spiraling guitar piece “Atmosphere.”
Co-produced by Mitch Easter—who also performed with Velvet Crush as a second guitarist on the road, replacing Dave Gibbs of the Gigolo Aunts and preceding Tommy Keene and other guests—Teenage Symphonies to God also received a warm reception. On tour to promote the album, audiences were surprised to find that the group’s live performances veered away from the typical, low-key pop show. “Velvet Crush is much harder live than on disc,” Boston Globe staff writer Michael Saunders reported in 1995 after a gig at a Boston area venue, “far more intense and committed to hammering away at a song until the tune wilts from exhaustion.”
Despite critical successes and a growing fanbase, especially in the college/indie markets, the Velvet Crush retreated for a few years, but returned in 1998 with Heavy Changes, their first record since 1994. Adopting a harder-edge rock approach and tossing aside their Byrds/Big Star influences, the Velvet Crush disappointed many fans. Similarly, Heavy Changes hadn’t gone over well with the band’s former label, Creation Records, either, and the company refused to release the record shortly after its completion. Although eventually picked up and issued by Cooking Vinyl, the trio’s third effort won less than admirable reviews. “The Velvet Crush have attempted to spruce themselves up for a cruise down racket road at 180 mph,” wrote one critic for the New Musical Express (NME) website, “but they’ve gotten so caught up in the momentum of their journey that they’ve left the tunes behind.”
Also in 1998, Menck and Chastain were further shaken when longtime guitarist Borchardt announced his resignation from the Velvet Crush. Thus, the duo decided to record their next album on their own terms, setting up at Sweet’s home studio in Los Angeles, California, free from the pressures and hassles of the music business. “It was fun again,” Menck told Dan Epsteinin an interview for Launch.com. “We weren’t signed to Creation, so we didn’t have to submit our songs for approval; we paid for it ourselves and did it like we did in the old days—just set up the equipment in a room and press the ‘record’ button.”
The result, 1999’s Free Expression, marked a return to the Velvet Crush’s sixties roots and reestablished their reputation with critics. Coproduced by Sweet, who also served as an ad hoc band member cowriting songs and contributing some guitars and keyboards, the album revealed an uncluttered, low-key production quality with songs that touched upon country, folk, and 1960s pop. Highlights from the effort included “Roman Candle,” “Gentle Breeze,” “Melody #7,” and “Between the Lines.”
In addition to playing in the Velvet Crush, both Menck and Chastain were regular mainstay’s in Sweet’s band, and Menck also worked with singer/songwriter Liz Phair. Although Menck freely admitted to using touches from his pop inspirations in the Velvet Crush’s own recordings, he nonetheless stressed that the band never sought to recreate the past. “I have such a hard time talking to Velvet Crush fans,” he laughed, as quoted by Epstein, “because they want to talk about the Raspberries, while I’d much rather talk about the new Madonna single, which I think is a pop classic. The essence of rock ‘n’ roll is the cross-pollination of it all—pop, soul, country, blues, whatever. And that’s really where Velvet Crush is coming from.”
Ash and Earth, (EP7), Bus Stop, 1991.
The Soul Crusher e.p., (EP7), (Australia) Summershine, 1991.
In the Presence of Greatness, Ringers Lactate, 1991
The Post-Greatness e.p., (EP), (U.K.) Creation, 1992.
Teenage Symphonies to God, Creation/550 Music/Epic, 1994.
Heavy Changes, Cooking Vinyl, 1998.
Free Expression, Bobsled, 1999.
The Happy Forest, Metro-America/Enigma, 1984.
Halo, (EP), Pet Sounds, 1985.
Choo Choo Train
Briar Rose, (EP), (U.K.) Subway Organisation, 1988.
High, (EP), Subway Organisation, 1988.
Briar High (Singles 1988), Subway Organisation, 1992.
Time Trails, Summershine, 1996.
Robbins, Ira A., editor, Trouser Press Guide to ‘90s Rock, Fireside/Simon and Schuster, 1997.
Audio, December 1994.
Boston Globe, January 9, 1995; October 8, 1998; November 11, 1999.
Los Angeles Times, August 27, 1999.
Melody Maker, May 9, 1992.
People, August 15, 1994.
Rolling Stone, March 5, 1992; December 10, 1992; December 1, 1994.
Stereo Review, January 1995.
Stereo Review’s Sound and Vision, November 1999.
Launch.com, http://www.launch.com (March 15, 2000).
NME.com, http://www.nme.com (March 15, 2000).
An American band that is generally categorized as power pop, a musical style that blends ultramelodic, infectious songs with harder-edged musical accompaniment, Velvet Crush has been noted for expanding the genre to include country rock, hard rock, and soft rock, while retaining their artistic vision and the essential qualities of great pop music. Founded in 1989, the band is led by drummer/vocalist Ric Menck and bassist/lead vocalist Paul Chastain. Initially a trio with guitarist/vocalist Jeffrey Borchardt (a.k.a. Underhill), Velvet Crush has had a series of revolving fourth members, notably Borchardt's replacement, guitarist Peter Phillips, and power poppers Matthew Sweet, Mitch Easter, David Gibbs, Tommy Keene, and Adam Schmitt. Sweet, Easter, and Schmitt also have produced records for the group. Characterized by jangly, crunchy guitars, high harmonies, and catchy hooks, the songs of Velvet Crush are noted for their variety of moods, as well as their thoughtful lyrics, highlighted by Chastain's gritty tenor vocals and Menck's powerful drumming. The band's music has reflected a wide variety of influences, most notably from 1960s and 1970s pop, rock, and country artists. The group also has incorporated more aggressive sounds from pre-punk, punk, arena rock, and alternative rock into their music, as well as softer, more acoustic-based fare. They have also been acknowledged as fine interpreters of the songs of other musicians.
Chastain and Menck met as students in Champaign, Illinois, and the pair began performing together, in addition to working solo and with other groups. In 1984 Menck's band, the Chicago-based Reverbs, released The Happy Forest, an album on the Metro-America/Enigma label. Menck's work with the Reverbs led to a friendship with Matthew Sweet, whose band Buzz of Delight was in friendly competition with the Reverbs. Menck also became friends with Mitch Easter, a recording artist and producer whose work he admired, at around the same time. In 1984 Chastain released Halo, a six-song independent EP that reflected his love of bands such as the Beatles and R.E.M. Menck then formed the Picture Book label in order to release his own material as well as that of his friends, including Chastain. The pair recorded solo material as well as singles under various group names, such as Choo Choo Train, the Springfields, and the Paint Set. The Springfields' music was released in the United Kingdom by Sarah Records, a now-legendary independent label located in Bristol, England. One of the bands that had its singles released by Menck's Picture Book label was the Milwaukee-based White Sisters, which featured guitarist Jeffrey Borchardt. Menck and Chastain became friends with the guitarist, and when Borchardt, who also used the surname Underhill, moved to Providence, Rhode Island, in 1988, the pair followed. The next year, the trio formed Velvet Crush.
In 1990 Velvet Crush released its first single, "If Not True/One Thing Two Believe" for the indie label Bus Stop Records. The next year they released their debut album on Ringers Lactate Records. Produced by Sweet in his living room studio, In the Presence of Greatness was filled with enthusiasm, punk energy, and Borchardt's slashing chords. Their stellar debut earned Velvet Crush a deal with Creation Records, an English label that was home to such acts as Oasis and Teenage Fanclub. Stewart Mason of All Music Guide called In the Presence of Greatness "a straight-up piece of '90s power pop," adding that it "sounds like Big Star's #1 Record updated for a new decade." Ira Robbins of Trouser Press concluded, "As far as Greatness goes, this is the real thing." The band's next album, Teenage Symphonies to God, was Velvet Crush's only major-label release. Issued on Epic in 1994, Symphonies was produced by Mitch Easter, who was well known for leading the alternative pop band Let's Active and for producing R.E.M. Writing in All Music Guide, Stephen Thomas Erlewine described Symphonies as "filled with ultra-melodic guitar hooks and simple, memorable melodies." Matt Dorman of Comes with a Smile later commented, "It's widely accepted among the pop community that Teenage Symphonies to God… remains [Velvet Crush's] defining statement."
Velvet Crush Crushed
After the release of Teenage Symphonies to God, Velvet Crush seemed poised to become the band that brought power pop to the mainstream. The record received positive reviews, and the group developed a reputation as a particularly effective live act. However, Velvet Crush's subsequent album, Heavy Changes, was rejected by both Epic and Creation for its lack of commercial appeal. After their band was dropped, Velvet Crush hit the road; their live show was documented in Rock Concert, a recording from 1995 that was released in 2000. Velvet Crush developed major followings in Japan, Scandinavia, and Spain, and also toured as Sweet's backing band. In 1997, exhausted from years of touring, the group broke up. Menck moved to Los Angeles to work as a studio musician, Chastain moved back to Champaign, and Borchardt stayed in Providence. In the meantime, Heavy Changes, which had been released in Japan by Sony, began to garner positive reviews from Japanese record-buyers. After a period of recuperation, Menck and Chastain decided to re-form Velvet Crush. Borchardt elected to stay in Rhode Island, and the band chose Peter Phillips, a guitarist who had appeared on Heavy Changes, as his permanent replacement. Menck and Chastain formed their own label, Action Musik, distributed by Parasol Records, to release Heavy Changes domestically. Issued in 1998, Heavy Changes was what the band called their "blues" album. Though praised for its creativity and boldness, Heavy Changes may have been too much of a departure for the group, and is usually considered the group's least successful offering.
Back on Track
In 1999 Velvet Crush recorded Free Expression for Bobsled Records. Again produced by Sweet, the record was considered a welcome return to form. Influenced by West Coast groups such as Love, Buffalo Springfield, and Beachwood Sparks, Free Expression was Velvet Crush's version of California music. Calling the album "pop perfection," Dennis Cook of Pause Record stated, "For better than 10 years, this band has churned out some of the best music around. For those not already card-carrying members of their love cult, this is the train to hop on." Writing in Pitchfork, Joe Tangari concluded that Free Expression "represents Velvet Crush at their apex."
For the Record …
Members include Jeffrey Borchardt (a.k.a. Jeffrey Underhill; born Jeffrey Scott Borchardt on July 27, 1963, in Rockford, IL; son of Lee Borchardt and Dana Johnson; married Lisa Dermanouelin [a musician] on October 27, 1997; children: a daughter; left group, 1997), guitar, vocals; Paul Chastain , bass, vocals; Ric Menck , drums, vocals; Peter Phillips (joined group, 1997), guitar.
Band formed in Providence, RI, by school friends Paul Chastain and Ric Menck, and Jeffrey Borchardt (a.k.a. Underhill), 1989; issued independent singles for Bus Stop label before releasing first album, In the Presence of Greatness, on Ringers Lactate label, 1991; signed to Epic Records in the U.S. and Creation in the U.K.; released their only major-label album, Teenage Symphonies to God, 1994; toured with groups such as Oasis, Teenage Fanclub, and the Jesus and Mary Chain to support the record; Epic and Creation dropped group, which disbanded in 1997; Chastain and Menck reformed group minus Borchardt, adding permanent member Peter Phillips; Chastain and Menck founded Action Musik, an imprint of Parasol Records; released Heavy Changes and other band-related recordings, 1998; band signed with Bobsled Records, released Free Expression, 1999; with Geoff Merritt, Menck founded Reaction Recordings to reissue additional material by other artists, 2000; band released Soft Sounds on Action Musik, 2002; issued Velvet Crush compilations on Action Musik before releasing album of new studio material, Stereo Blues, 2004.
Awards: New Musical Express listing, Top 50 Albums of the Year, for In the Presence of Greatness, 1992.
Addresses: Record companies—Action Musik Recording Co., P.O. Box 2227, Toluca Lake, CA 91610-9227; Parasol Records, 303 West Griggs St., Urbana, IL 61801, phone: (217) 344-8652, e-mail: [email protected] Website—Velvet Crush Official Website: http://www.velvetcrushrockgroup.com. E-mail—vel [email protected]
In 2002 Velvet Crush released Soft Sounds, a work that began as a Chastain solo project. The album, which featured production by Sweet as well as an appearance by Underhill on drums rather than guitar, eschewed the band's trademark six-string pop for a more keyboard-driven, lower-key approach. Patrick Berkery of Seattle Weekly called Soft Sounds "a delicious, blowing-through-the-jasmine-of-your-mind soft-rock trip." In 2004 Velvet Crush released Stereo Blues, which was intended as a raucous rock record similar to their earlier work. The album was produced by the band and Adam Schmitt, a power-pop solo artist who had worked with Menck in the group Pop the Balloon in the early 1980s. In 2002 Menck co-founded Reaction Recordings with the owner of Parasol Records, Geoff Merritt, in order to reissue worthy but overlooked material. The imprint reissued such artists as 1960s pop icons the Action and early 1980s garage rockers the Vertebrats.
Menck has continued to play drums for other musicians including Willie Nelson, Aimee Mann, Marianne Faithfull, Kyle Vincent, Liz Phair, Jon Brion, Jeff Murphy, Dan Castellaneta, and the Tyde. Chastain works as a session musician when he is not with Velvet Crush, and Underhill plays guitar and sings with his pop band Honeybunch and works with other artists. Starting with Heavy Changes in 1998, Chastain and Menck released new Velvet Crush albums and reissues on their Action Musik label, including a reissued version of Free Expression that includes a bonus disc, their live recording from 1995, and several compilations of Velvet Crush material. An expanded edition of In the Presence of Greatness was re-released by Too Pure in 1991 and reissued with bonus tracks by Action Musik in 2001.
Many reviewers consider Velvet Crush to be an influential cult band that deserves much wider recognition. Although sometimes criticized for not repeating the success of their first two albums in their subsequent releases, the group has been applauded for its musical diversity, artistic growth, and ability to create appealing, well-played songs. Writing in Habits of Waste, Jeff Purdue said, "I am genuinely at a loss as to why more people don't listen to them; they seem to me to be an ideal pop band." Dan Epstein of LA Weekly commented that "money can't buy the sort of artistic excellence found on Velvet Crush's records…. Since 1989, [they] have consistently outclassed their pop contemporaries." Matt Cibula of PopMatters concluded, "If this were any kind of cool world at all, Velvet Crush would be the biggest band in it. The greatest power-pop act of all time, and the ultimate U.S. cult band of the 1990s."
"If Not True/One Thing Two Believe," Bus Stop, 1990.
In the Presence of Greatness, Ringers Lactate, 1991; released in U.K. on Creation, 1991; reissued on CD by Too Pure, 2001; reissued with bonus tracks, Action Musik, 2001.
Teenage Symphonies to God, Epic, 1994; released in U.K. on Creation, 1994; released on compact disc, Sony, 1994.
Heavy Changes, Action Musik, 1998; reissued, 2001.
Free Expression, Bobsled, 1999; reissued with bonus tracks, Action Musik, 2003.
Rock Concert (live), Action Musik, 2000.
A Single Odessey, Action Musik, 2001.
Timeless Melodies, Epic, 2001.
Melody Freaks, Action Musik, 2002.
Soft Sounds, Action Musik, 2002.
Stereo Blues, Action Musik, 2004.
Bogdanov, Vladimir, Chris Woodstra, and Stephen Thomas Erlewine, editors, All Music Guide to Rock: The Definitive Guide to Pop, Rock, and Soul, AMG/Backbeat Books, 2002.
LA Weekly, October 15, 1999.
Seattle Weekly, December 11, 2002.
"Blissed-Out Fatalists," Habits of Waste (Western Washington University), http://www.habitsofwaste.wwu.edu (June 23, 2004).
"CD Capsule Reviews," Pause Record, http://www.pauserecord.com (June 23, 2004).
"Velvet Crush," PopMatters, http://www.popmatters.com/music/reviews/v/velvetcrush-inthepresence.shtml (June 23, 2004).
"Velvet Crush," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (June 30, 2004).
"Velvet Crush," Pitchfork Media, http://www.pitchforkmedia.com (June 23, 2004).
"Velvet Crush: Review," Comes with a Smile, http://www.cwas.hinah.com (June 23, 2004).
"Velvet Crush," Trouser Press,http://www.trouserpress.com (June 23, 2004).
—Gerard J. Senick