Though they tend to get overlooked when people remember the alt-rock scene of the 90s, pop trio Velvet Crush remains one of my favorite bands from the era. Its members had previously bounced around in several groups—the Reverbs, Choo Choo Train, Honeybunch, Bag O’Shells, and the Springfields, most of them aligned with the prolific late-80s jangle-pop community in Champaign—but they reached their peak as a unit. Drummer Ric Menck (a native of suburban Barrington) and bassist Paul Chastain (from Champaign) also worked frequently with Matthew Sweet’s touring band around the time of his 1991 classic Girlfriend—Menck actually plays on some of the album. Velvet Crush’s third member was guitarist Jeffrey Underhill, who joined after Menck and Chastain moved to Providence, Rhode Island, in 1990; together the three of them stood in no one’s shadow, adding muscle to the somewhat wispy pop they’d been creating in years prior.
Velvet Crush released strong records throughout the 90s, and its swan song, Stereo Blues, came out in 2004. The 1994 album Teenage Symphonies to God is widely considered the group’s apotheosis—an opinion I share (its title borrows from Brian Wilson’s description of the mythical unreleased Beach Boys album Smile). The record was produced with Mitch Easter, a key architect of the era’s jangly guitar-pop sound who’d worked on several early R.E.M. records, played in the Sneakers (with Chris Stamey), and later led Let’s Active. He sharpened the band’s meaty, harmony-rich sound, which gave ferocity to hooks that lingered for days. Sadly, neither Teenage Symphonies nor any of the gems that followed elevated Velvet Crush beyond the level of club attraction—which is a drag, especially because the music has held up great over time.
On Friday, Omnivore Records releases Pre-Teen Symphonies, which compiles eight fiery demos for Teenage Symphonies to God and eight live tracks from a 1995 concert at Cabaret Metro (with pop auteur Tommy Keene on additional guitar). The two sets of music were previously issued in limited-run titles on the band’s own Action Musik imprint as Melody Freaks (2002) and Rock Concert (2000). It all sounds great, capturing a band that was operating at peak efficiency and had firmly established its own identity and sound. That also means the material doesn’t differ much from the official studio album. The audio quality is great—you can see for yourself below with today’s 12 O’Clock Track, the demo version of “Hold Me Up.” This might not be the single best place to get introduced to Velvet Crush, but on the other hand, dipping a toe anywhere is better than never exploring the band’s inviting waters.
Gideon Kremer & Kremerata Baltica, New Seasons (Deutsche Grammophon)
Apartment House, James Saunders: Assigned #15 (Another Timbre)
De Beren Gieren, One Mirrors Many (Clean Feed)
Arditti String Quartet, Luigi Nono: Fragmente/Hay Que Caminar (Montaigne)
Bert Jansch, Nicola/Birthday Blues (Demon/Transatlantic)