Among power-pop’s truest believers, Ric Menck is a visionary and a scholar, a brilliant pilgrim on a lifetime quest to understand and master that inscrutable fusion of allure, insight and energy that yields the most sublime melodic devotionals to the grand wizards of the two-minute single: Brian Wilson, Alex Chilton, Roger McGuinn, Ray Davies, Pete Townshend, Phil Spector, etc. That he has sought to do so from behind a small drum kit rather than with a guitar or piano only heightens the intensity of the Illinois native’s efforts, sharpens the clarity of his perspective. Where other auteurs have found easy creative satisfaction in the imitation of some obvious aspect of their icons’ formulae, Menck — who can both sing and play guitar but rarely does either in public — demonstrates a keener, deeper obsession with the zen of pop.
Before joining forces, Menck and singer/bassist Paul Chastain pursued the pop muse separately in different parts of Illinois. Menck was half of the Reverbs; The Happy Forest (all seven tracks of it) is blandly produced and pedestrian mid-’80s power pop dominated by John Brabeck’s colorless vocals. Chastain reached 12-inch vinyl shortly thereafter, with a solo EP. The teasingly brief six-song Halo is a real charmer, tender and skillfully realized originals that brush against R.E.M. pep, Beatlesque wistfulness and modest approximations of studio grandiloquence, all buoyed by Chastain’s sweet voice and confident aplomb.
After working for a time as Pop the Balloon with future solo artist and producer Adam Schmitt, Menck formed Choo Choo Train (and the side groups Bag O’Shells and the Springfields for good measure) with Chastain in the late ’80s and set out to conquer the world. Eleven simple tracks by the twinky trio (with guitarist Darren Cooper), including all of the Briar Rose and High EPs, were posthumously compiled as Briar High and issued over Menck’s strenuous objections. Sanctioned or not, it documents the group’s aerated Anglo-pop obsessions in lightly rendered cut-to-the-heart songs — “Flower Field,” “When Sunday Comes (She Sighs),” “My Best Friend” — given a sparkly dusting of chiming guitars, snappy beats and Chastain’s wimpiest vocals. Poignant, pretty and dizzyingly gentle power pop. Jeff Murphy of Shoes guests on “Every Little Knight”; Menck sings lead on “Big Blue Buzz” and “Wishing on a Star.” Years later, eleven of those tracks were given the band’s blessing and reissued on Hey Wimpus: The Early Recordings of Paul Chastain & Ric Menck, with the added benefit of a stirring cover of Paul Collins’ “Walking Out on Love.”
Concurrent with a move to Providence, Rhode Island in 1990, Menck and Chastain retired Choo Choo Train and — with guitarist Jeffrey Borchardt (aka Underhill), a Wisconsin native who had been in the White Sisters and was also leading the Honeybunch — inaugurated a new, more focused, group. As the Velvet Crush, the trio embraced pop music as a living ideal, not a convenience or a nostalgic refuge. Awesomely catchy, genially level-headed and brashly electric, In the Presence of Greatness — produced with a minimum of muss and fuss by Matthew Sweet at home on his 8-track — suspends Chastain’s voice and Borchardt’s slashing chords over Menck’s economical and musical beat-keeping. Entirely true to the form but distinctly original, the collaborative songwriting yields a steady stream of winners (the puerile lyrics of the acoustic “Asshole” do seem to have been imported from a discount broker, however): “Drive Me Down,” “Window to the World,” “Ash and Earth,” “Blind Faith,” “White Soul,” “Superstar.” Free of style-mongering, reference-dropping and retro-pandering, it’s an exceptional album that ignores the ’60s and the ’90s as well, mapping out a pure electric pop sound of its own. As far as Greatness goes, this is the real thing. The two prior 7-inches contain the same four songs from that November ’90 Sweet session. Besides the first’s title track, the EPs contain the non-LP “Circling the Sun” and covers of Teenage Fanclub’s “Everything Flows” and Jonathan Richman’s “She Cracked.”
One of the three new songs wrapped around a remixed “Window to the World” on The Post-Greatness e.p. is “Atmosphere,” a surging harmony workout that gets a stronger electric charge on the trio’s second album. Co-produced by Mitch Easter (who also served as VC’s second guitarist on the road, replacing Dave Gibbs of the Gigolo Aunts and preceding Tommy Keene and others in the slot), Teenage Symphonies to God — the title comes from something Brian Wilson once said — carries the group closer to Gram Parsons-influenced country-rock. Borrowing ex-Byrd Gene Clark’s sad-eyed “Why Not Your Baby,” co-writing a convincing country-soul charmer (“Faster Days”) with Stephen Duffy of the Lilac Time and crafting its own pop and country-rock originals, the Velvet Crush keeps one foot in its stylistic past while leaning in another direction entirely. Besides the idiom shift and noticeable improvement in technique, the second album’s tone is warmer, more intimate. Lyrics face difficulties with equal parts compassion and confusion—and little emotional success. “My Blank Pages,” a snarly poker of guitar pop, and “Keep on Lingerin’,” a dusky pedal-steel bounce, face up to a universal sense of uncertainty (“Can’t say just how I feel inside / I know there’s something on my mind / But I can’t put reason into rhyme,” quips the former; “I’m not sure where I’m goin’ / Bright neon lights / A lifetime passing me by,” laments the latter)—and that’s the buoyant side. While the gorgeous “Time Wraps Around You” announces “It’s time to leave the past far behind,” other numbers paint a lonely and bleak future: “This Life Is Killing Me,” the bracing “Hold Me Up” (“One is too alone / Suffer as the days / Linger on and on”). In this context, the romantic folk-rock of “Weird Summer” and the Fanclubby self-deprecation of “Star Trip” pass for blinding bright spots. How this all adds up to an uplifting joy to hear is far from obvious; suffice it to say the soaring vocals, chiming guitars and snappy backbeat send a much happier message than the desolation row lyrics.
At this point constituted as a four-piece unit (guitarist Peter Phillips shares songwriting credit with the others), the group made Heavy Changes. With Easter again on hand, VC clings to the wistful melodic rock power linking the first two albums, favoring its country side only in a cover of Buck Owens’ “White Satin Bed.” The best tracks, “Play for Keeps,” “Standing Still,” are energetic and uplifting kissoffs slightly overloaded with lead guitar exertions, while the jangly “Think It Over” is as fine a Big Star song as that group never created, and “Live for Now” is simple and effective. Not everything here is of that caliber, though, and the drumming doesn’t always swing with the earlier records’ delicacy, as a harder-hitting Menck occasionally employs a choppy martial beat.
Recorded by the VC core duo with Matthew Sweet and others, Free Expression is a gentler end of the affair, effectively reasserting the sweet and soft pop center of the band’s music. The tenderly pretty songs are rendered in assorted pastel flavors, with coloring provided by touches of vintage synthesizer, steel guitarist Greg Leisz’s lachrymose string work and occasional stirring trumpet charts. Around the whispery centerpiece of a redone “Gentle Breeze” (a song originally on The Post-Greatness e.p.), the album wraps a Beatlesque reverie (“Between the Lines”), small production extravaganzas (“Melody #1” and “All Together”), a simple piano ballad (“Ballad of Yesteryear”), fine pop confections (the soaring “Goin’ to My Head,” “Shine on Me,” “The Unlucky One”), rocking tunes (“Kill Me Now,” “Worst Enemy”) and eloquent acoustic fingerpicking (“Things Get Better” comes complete with bird sounds to underscore the reference to the Beatles’ “Blackbird”). Unfailingly pleasant and handsomely appointed but mild, what lingers from Free Expression is an agreeable haze rather than a vivid memory. In addition to revealing liner notes by the band, the expanded reissue adds a complete set of thoroughly realized Chastain demos (including some impressive trumpet work) that doubles the album’s pleasures.
The brief Rock Concert live disc was recorded (not too well — the ultra-compressed sound is downright weird) in Chicago in 1995 and documents the Tommy Keene era. Most of the eight songs hail from Teenage Symphonies to God, although the hard-charging and well-played disc closes with a cover of 20/20’s monumental “Remember the Lightning.” A studio rendition of that tune is one highlight of A Single Odessey, which compiles all of the group’s non-LP singles & EP tracks — 20 in all. The straight chronological sequencing makes for a stylistically unpredictable listening seesaw, but a haunting acoustic “Drive Me Down,” such VC classics as “Circling the Sun,” and “Atmosphere” join covers of Jonathan Richman’s “She Cracked,” the Byrds’ “Mr. Spaceman,” Teenage Fanclub’s “Everything Flows” and Gram Parsons’ “One Hundred Years From Now” make it much more than a completist’s obligation. (Incidentally, it’s probably safe to blame the album’s eccentrically spelled title on the Zombies and their longplaying masterpiece, Odessey and Oracle.) Timeless Melodies is a career-spanning compilation issued only in Japan.
Continuing to vamp in the absence of a proper new album, the group released Melody Freaks, an album of 18 demos and outtakes dating from 1990 to 1996. It includes alternate versions of such songs as “This Life Is Killing Me,” “Hold Me Up,” “Time Wraps Around You” and “My Blank Pages.”
The gorgeous, intimate and descriptively titled Soft Sounds, which began as a Chastain solo project, was completed without Menck’s full involvement yet released under the Velvet Crush name. (Jeffrey Underhill plays some of the drums; Sweet and Greg Leisz also play on the record.) The Scott Walker song (“Duchess”) is camp without being funny, but the originals are heartfelt, tender and quietly powerful. If it’s not exactly the sound that first attracted fans to VC, it’s nonetheless an estimable mature pop album from the dark side of the band’s moon.
In light of the band’s painful soul-searching, the Menck solo trip — an accumulation of 8-track recordings made between 1985 and 1990, some previously released on record by the Springfields and the Hey Wimpus compilation of his and Chastain’s pure pre-VC pop — are easy delights. Inhabiting the realm of bands like the dB’s and Let’s Active on the power pop continuum, Menck sings the eleven loveydovey songs on The Ballad with unspecified help from his VC bandmates, former ‘Til Tuesday drummer Michael Hausman (aka VC’s manager) and others. Although the quality of singing and songwriting is uneven, echoey psychedelollipop originals like “Perfect Day,” “The Bicycle Song,” “Sunflower” and “She Swirls Around Me” — as well as covers of Matthew Sweet’s “Are We Gonna Be Alright?” and the Pastels’ superb “Million Tears” (complete with bonus Bonzo Dog Band reference) — uphold Menck’s artistic values with charming directness and honesty.
Velvet Crush is now an intermittent venture as Chastain has remained on the East Coast while Menck pursues a diverse drummer-for-hire career — including stints with Liz Phair, Marianne Faithfull and the Tyde — based in LA. The duo’s most recent release, Stereo Blues has some enthralling moments (the distorted, energetic “Rusted Star,” the reserved seethe of “The Connection,” the Television-like guitar solo that carries out “California Incline,” the wriggly construction of “Get Yourself Right”) amid other reliable, but less compelling, examples of the duo’s maturing power-pop. The country element that first emerged on Teenage Symphonies to God and at times threatened to engulf the band’s future, is kept under wraps until the very end: “Great to Be Fine” adds pedal steel to a summery Ray Davies soundalike. Adam Schmitt co-produced and added “guitars, keyboards & harmony vocals all over the record.” Old VC pal Darren Cooper also plays and sings on “The Connection.”