The Verve Pipe formed in East Lansing, Michigan in 1992 when members of two popular area groups decided to work together. The sum was indeed greater than its parts, and the group quickly garnered a regional following for its textured rock sound, marked by inventive arrangements, frontman Brian Vander Ark’s soul-searching lyrics and layered vocals. I’ve Suffered a Head Injury is clearly the work of a young band; the tempo shifts in “Martyr Material” get a bit too cute, and some of the album’s new wave touches are out of date. But “Brian’s Song” is driven by a solid, jangly rock groove and stirring guitar solos, while “The Freshmen” is an insightful treatise on accountability via the mistreatment of a woman by two young men.
Pop Smear is more fully realized and distinctive. The songs are sturdier and harder-hitting, the new muscle coming from plain old artistic growth plus the addition of guitarist A.J. Dunning. Vander Ark’s vocals are more assured and commanding, and the sonic breadth — which seemed a bit willy nilly on Head Injury — is more focused. The loud, murky rock of “Spoonful of Sugar,” the Latin bop of “Honest” and the shimmering folk of “What You Wanted” all sound of a singular piece.
The Verve Pipe hit a timely peak as it was making its major-label debut. Produced by Jerry Harrison, Villains is a mature work marked by its substantial dynamic range — from the driving rock fury of “Barely (If at All)” and “Drive You Mild” to the layered ambience of “Veneer,” the chiming balladry of “Penny Is Poison” and the tightly coiled build of the title track. “The Freshmen” shows up again, improved by a slower, more dramatic arrangement. Villains also marks the arrival of keyboardist/percussionist Doug Corella, which gives the Verve Pipe additional sonic textures to separate it from the standard two-guitar modern rock attack.