Although this now-defunct Olympia, Washington outfit — along with fellow travelers Beat Happening — introduced the term “love-rock” into the underground lexicon, Some Velvet Sidewalk wasn’t all sweetness and light. Sure, frontman Al Larsen’s unrelenting artlessness — evident in both his purposefully detuned, primitive playing and Jonathan Richmanesque tales of ice cream, dinosaurs and the like — borders on naïveté. But there’s enough tensile strength in his presentation to keep sugar shock at bay.
Presaging the guitar/drum duo format that would become an essential segment of the indie-pop underground, Larsen and Robert Christie disturbed the peace as willfully as their proto-grunge contemporaries, first with a tape, a careening four-song EP that attempted to reduce 30-odd years of primordial ooze into seven minutes of unhewn sound and then with the fractured, often utterly daft Appetite for Extinction. Larsen really lets his geek flag fly, splaying chords and almost-chords in a cadence so odd that you just know the stops and starts serve mostly to give him a chance to push up his glasses. Between the epic grind of “Snow” and the too-brief pop discourse of “20,000 Leagues,” Some Velvet Sidewalk covers all of nerd-pop’s bases, getting thrown out only when they unplug on the insufferably twee “Crayons.”
In a bow to tradition, Larsen reconfigured SVS as a power trio of sorts, adding bassist Don Blair and replacing Christie with Martin Bernier. The new lineup gives Avalanche more magnetism in the traditional sense, prompting the odd head-wag (on the groove-oriented “Peaches”) and head-bang (on the unhinged “Loch Ness,” an impassioned plea to “let that monster go”). Although Larsen’s nasal delivery can be one of the band’s greater charms — especially when he’s struggling, à la Richman, to fit in as many words per bar as possible — his ineptitude as a “singer” reveals itself again when the band turns down on “Little Wishes.” Thankfully, the recording levels stay in the red throughout the I Scream EP, which is structured around two mixes of Avalanche‘s “Ice Cream Overdrive,” a thoroughly over-the-top, Stoogesque bash celebrating the frozen sweet. “Shame,” which finds Larsen reinventing hip-hop as Jungian therapy, is tough sledding, but the bile spewed on the minimal “I Blame You” goes a long way toward greasing the skids.
Whirpool is considerably more composed than Some Velvet Sidewalk’s previous work. Although Larsen’s pseudo-savant lyrics still gouge at normally sheltered parts of the psyche — see the title track and “How Will I?” — producer Steve Fisk spreads the band’s sound out considerably, encouraging the exploration of mid-range frequencies as opposed to just squeal and thump. On “Big City Plans,” the trio even shelves the give-me-primitivism-or-give-me-death banner, adding guest trumpet and Fisk organ to very good effect.
On Shipwreck, which was actually recorded in 1990 but shelved as the band’s second album, Larsen fills out the band with a rhythm section made up of fellow primitivists like Louise Olsen and Bikini Kill’s Tobi Vail (the slightly more rock-minded Donna Dresch also guests). It’s less resolute in its adherence to Richmania, thanks to primal screams that are more adult than most of Larsen’s childlike purgatives. If nothing else, the crude disc should serve to prove that the Sidewalk king is extremely unlikely to go in search of the lost chord: two is plenty for him.
Sandy Dirt was briefly convened in Scotland, where Larsen recorded five songs with the Pastels. Sandy Dirt is a sometimes tense marriage of decidedly different perspectives as to what makes pop tick. Neither Larsen nor Stephen Pastel is what you’d call a fusspot about sonics, which makes for a few flinch-worthy melodic clashes. But, overall, the EP’s mélange of sweetness and bite passes the “you got chocolate in my peanut butter” test with flying colors.