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Members include JeffreyBorchardt (born in Wisconsin; former member of White Sisters and leader of Honeybunch; left band in 1998), guitar; PaulChastain (born in Illinois; former member of Choo Choo Train; recorded as a solo artist; played in Matthew Sweet's band), vocals, bass; RicMenck (born in Illinois; former member of the Reverbs and Choo Choo Train; played in Matthew Sweet's band), drums, occasional guitar and vocals. Addresses: Record company--Bobsled Records, P.O. Box 6407, Aurora, IL 60598.
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."
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 Epstein in 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 re-established their reputation with critics. Co-produced by Sweet, who also served as an ad hoc band member co-writing 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."
by Laura Hightower
Velvet Crush's Career
Formed band in Providence, RI, in 1990; released debut album, In the Presence of Greatness, 1991; released Free Expressionwithout a record company contract in 1999.
- Selected discography
- Velvet Crush
- 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.
- Paul Chastain
- 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.
August 10, 2004: Velvet Crush's album, Stereo Blues, was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_6/index.jsp, August 11, 2004.
- 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).
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