Why the Velvet Crush believes Free Expression, released a mere four years ago, already deserves the elaborate reissue treatment usually reserved for well-worn classics (i.e., Pet Sounds; the Byrds, Love, and Jefferson Airplane reissues; etc.), complete with a nostalgic look back in time to its genesis and an entire disc of demos and rejected tracks, is not clear. One ends up anticipating stereo and mono mixes and a few more bonus discs of studio chatter, unused vocal takes, and tapes of the band tuning. Their lionizing liner notes, which find them namedropping their famous associates, comparing themselves to Big Star and Gram Parsons, and deliberating carefully over the drama of the band’s tempestuous evolution—all intended to preserve privileged glances into the inner workings of their genius for posterity—carry the Velvet Crush to an off-putting level of hubristic self-importance somewhat out of keeping with their being the frail insecure bunch their effete, melancholic power pop suggests they are. But maybe they are not incompatible: The insecure people we know (i.e., ourselves) are typically rampant egoists who bristle at the world’s unaccountable refusal to acknowledge they are at the center of the universe.
Perhaps the Velvet Crush have a devoted fan base for whom they truly are at the center of the universe, a group they can rely on to buy their albums a second time when they tack on extraneous and apocryphal material. One has to wonder if they ever feel exploited, or if they are simply grateful there is more Velvet Crush for them to adore. Such a cult’s existence is hard to fathom, though plenty of other fey, Beatle-esque bands have had such followings (the Posies, the dBs, Teenage Fanclub, Ladybug Transistor, the Lilys, etc.). Perhaps the fanaticism these bands can inspire derives from an ability to combine smugness with a self-effacing air, which intelligent people in an anti-intellectual culture must find intoxicating.
The most obvious analogue for the Velvet Crush’s sound is Matthew Sweet, who produced this album. Some of the same sweetening touches Sweet used on his own albums appear here: the tempered steel guitar on “Heaven Knows”, the Radio Shack keyboard on “Kill Me Now”, the pervasive tambourine. Egregious in their absence, however, are guitar soloists on a par with Robert Quine and Richard Lloyd, who helped immeasurably in giving Sweet’s lesser songs credibility.
The Velvet Crush often seem to aim for a Raspberries-like sound, the moderate tempos lulling listeners until the big hooks and harmonies in the bridges and the choruses are delivered. “Between the Lines” sounds as though it were patterned after the Raspberries’ teen-sex teaser “Let’s Pretend”, though it lacks the coyly lascivious lyrics. When the Raspberries were great, as in “Go All the Way” and “I Wanna Be with You”, it was because their songwriting was leaner than a capsule review (check the verse on “I Wanna Be with You”) and Eric Carmen’s vocals were full-throated and totally balls-out. Unfortunately, the vocals on Free Expression are never balls-out; more often than not they sound as if they have no balls at all.
The Velvet Crush’s weak voices are part of the problem—they sound as though they are always straining for notes just beyond their range, which makes them sound a bit insipid and whiny—but the larger part is that their lyrics are consistently safe and bland, full of clichés along the lines of “Going, going, gone”, or “You’ve got your troubles, I’ve got mine too” (which earns no points for being an allusion to a Searchers song). They subscribe to the school of songwriting which attempts to take familiar turns of phrase and string them together to make something vague and comforting and open to almost any possible application to one’s own love life. Clichés are fine when you are some kind of Smokey Robinson-esque wizard at inverting them and squeezing fresh and surprising implications from them. But the Velvet Crush aren’t at that level. The songs on Free Expression are safe and tension-free, but they aren’t especially provocative. Taken individually, the songs are often satisfying, but taken one after the other their similar structures and tempos grow too predictable. They seem too polished, the craftsmanship so perfect that they may be mistaken for something prefabricated. Maybe tossing in the demos wasn’t such a bad idea after all.