Velvet Crush: In the Presence of Greatness / A Single Odessey

Velvet Crush
In the Presence of GreatnessA Single Odessey
Action Musik

Sometimes, when I close my eyes and wish real hard, I enter another world. There, things are pretty much the same as here, but everything is just, well, cooler. In the other world, Arvydis Sabonis comes over to the Trail Blazers about ten years earlier, and they become one of the greatest dynasties in sports history. In the other world, I fail to wimp out during that party in 9th grade and actually make out with Kathy Ilg instead of losing my nerve and making some stupid joke. In the other world, I save some of my record-buying money and buy a guitar instead. My buddies Dave and Jim and I form a band, and we rock.

That band in my head sounds exactly like Velvet Crush.

If this were any kind of cool world at all, Velvet Crush would be the biggest band in it. The greatest power-pop trio of all time, and the ultimate U.S. cult band of the 1990s, they started in the 1980s when very tall drummer Ric Menck and very short singer/bass player Paul Chastain met as students in Champaign, Illinois. They played in a few bands and ran an indie label together, but when their friend, medium-sized Milwaukee guitarist Jeffrey Borchardt (a.k.a. Underhill), moved to Providence, they moved there too to form the Velvet Crush.

Midwestern buddy Matthew Sweet had just moved into a house in New Jersey, so the Crush bopped down there a few weekends in a row and recorded some songs in Sweet’s home studio. These songs, which were supposed to be demos, were eventually just released in 1991 on Ringer’s Lactate (great label name, huh?) as In the Presence of Greatness. In England, where they appreciate this stuff, this record came out on the mighty Creation and made NME‘s Top 50 of the Year list.

ItPoG has been pretty much unavailable everywhere for almost a decade, but now Action Musik has re-mastered and re-issued it so we can hear just exactly what all the fuss was about. We’re talking Zombies, we’re talking Byrds, we’re talking Sweet and Jonathan Richman and Big Star, we’re talking dB’s and Let’s Active and the ‘Mats and the Knitters, we’re talking power-jangle, we’re talking sad and hyper melodies with lovely floaty harmonies singing witty and smart words over. Kinda jogs the memory a little, doesn’t it? (Think Scottish.) Yes, it’s true: on a blind-listen test, the average song from ItPoG could be mistaken for any average song from Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque. Both albums dropped in 1991, both garnered considerable critical heat, and both were destined to sink like very beautiful stones. Like the Fannies, Velvet Crush seem blissfully unaware of marketing trends; when was the last time in U.S. music history when music this pretty and intelligent could actually be played on the radio?

The dramatic crunch of “Drive Me Down”, with its breakdown and buildup at the three-minute mark, makes you wonder what the hell we were all listening to back then that was any better. In “White Soul”, the verses are all early R.E.M. and the chorus is Holsapple-era dB’s, and it’s so tight that you forgive it the stupid-ass title. The words are choice too: “How plain and melancholy this world tends to be / With no one saving me from me” is a whole Promise Ring album, but the Crush just tossed it off as the bridge of “Stop” and moved on. And on the sweetest and saddest song ever titled “Asshole”, the payoff doesn’t come until halfway: “Lose your self / And you lose it all / You won’t even know your heart from your asshole”. Golly.

This version is spiffed up with three bonus tracks, including a great cover of Jonathan Richman’s “She Cracked” and another of “Everything Flows” by (surprise!) Teenage Fanclub. These songs are also included on another new release by Action Musik called A Single Odessey. (Yes, that’s spelled correctly. Some kind of Zombies reference or something. Go figure.) This chronological romp through all of the band’s b-sides and EPs is like an immersion class in pop; it progresses from the jittery new-wave country shimmer of ItPoG and its impossibly neat-o follow-up Teenage Symphonies to God to the heavier bluesy stylings of the later (and much-maligned) Heavy Changes and Free Expression. I can’t really make a good case for owning this disc in lieu of the other stuff, but I will say that owning it will do you no harm and will make you want to scour the world for all the other albums anyway.

It’s pretty amazing to think about the range of Velvet Crush glimpsed here. A soft-sounding BBC version of “Drive Me Down” ends up sounding harder than the original, and stands up nicely between the nicely done original “Butterfly Position” and a crucial Tom-Petty-meets-A-House cover of 20/20’s “Remember the Lightning”. For completists, this disc contains a note-perfect ne’er released take on Gene Clark’s “Elevator Operator” — and for those who need another reason to hate Tom Hanks, listen to the song these guys submitted for potential use in the crummy movie That Thing You Do. Whereas the Adam Schlesinger-penned “official” version gives the word “twee” a new definition, this ballsy rootsy garage anthem will peel your nail polish. A Single Odessey is 64 minutes of pop heaven, and it’s good for you too.

You know, maybe this world isn’t so uncool after all. My high school buddies Dave and Jim actually did eventually buy guitars, and play in a band in Portland called the Range Pigs. Their sound is not too dissimilar to a group called the Velvet Crush.