1996's Villains found The Verve Pipe basking in the glow of a hit single, "Freshmen". For a time, the song was inescapable, taking on anthemic status for a generation of kids who were making the first real mistakes of their lives, and who were already feeling nostalgic about it. Maybe that's why the band seemingly tried to run as far away from the song as they could on their disappointing followup, 1999's The Verve Pipe. It was a wretched record, disappointing in every way -- the kind of album that few bands, especially one new to the public eye, walk away from intact.
The Verve Pipe, though, seem to be made of sterner stuff. Teaming with producer Adam Schlesinger (of Fountains of Wayne), the group has effectively reinvented/refound itself as a crack power-pop band. The differences are telling. In the place of the band’s previously muddled identity, which placed them somewhere on the more melodic sound of grunge, is a new identity that embraces big hooks and harmonies. This is especially evident in a track like “I Want All of You”, which rests on a sly drum beat and simple acoustic pattern. Vocalist Brian Vander Ark’s vocals are surprisingly seductive. It’s also the first indication of Vander Ark’s new level of comfort with his voice. Ranging in tasteful graininess, it’s similar in feel to Seal or Peter Gabriel, and it works wonders for the songs.
However, Underneath also treads through some regrettably generic songs. For all the band’s newfound inspiration, they still get mired in your typical midtempo rockers that fail to engage. That accounts for about a third of the album, so it’s hardly inconsequential. However, they also offer up successes like “Medication”, which wallows in wah-wah pedal effects and power chords. “Gotta Move On” maintains a delicate, bittersweet vibe via tasteful piano and a restrained falsetto by Vander Ark. “Local Boys” even exorcises a well-hidden Zeppelin fetish. “Wonderful Waste” is a curious but working hybrid of XTC and the Smithereens. The title track weaves a nice, ethereal mood, and it truly wouldn’t be out of place on Peter Gabriel’s recent work. When The Verve Pipe fire on all cylinders, they’re capable of truly engaging, radio-friendly rock.
True, there’s nothing blindingly original about the band’s newfound path. Still, Underneath is easily their best record so far—one which delivers on much of the promise that the band initially showed. Vander Ark’s mellowing croon is partly responsible, but credit should also be given to the newly discovered songwriting skills of drummer Donny Brown, which give the band more grace and personality. Schlesinger gets songwriting credit on a few songs, but it’s obvious that The Verve Pipe are gelling into a more cohesive band, and are no longer just a vehicle for Vander Ark. Underneath shows that the Verve Pipe learned from the mistakes of the past, which I guess is what “Freshmen” was talking about all those years ago.