What Could Be Simpler?
Now it seems to me that Paul Chastain and Rik Menck are kind of forgotten indierock legends, being the key songwriting core of Velvet Crush and the Springfields, both of whom made records to light up the world at the tail end of the ‘80s and the start of the ‘90s. Both came to my attention with singles on the then vital Bus Stop label in the US before folks like Sarah and Creation gave them a wider UK audience through a set of releases, notably the Springfields’ awe inspiring ‘Sunflower’ EP and the Velvet Crush In The Presence of Greatness set respectively. The Springfields in particular always made me weak at the knees, and ‘Sunflower’ was such a beautiful sad summer song. Which is all anyone really needs to know, except that I’m sure I’m not the only one wishing they made more of what they had. And really, The Springfields were the sound of Beachwood Sparks and their offshoot The Tyde a decade and a half early.

Velvet Crush on the other hand I struggled with at first because they were so darn loud and ‘rock’ sounding. It was the way of the world at the time, as it still is to some extent, although I overcame my wariness one summer evening with an extended solo walk on the beach, with Greatness and Slanted And Enchanted alternating as soundtrack. It was the night I switched on as much as I ever could to the sounds of the New American Rock, and it was a minor revelation. Really of course the revelation was that Velvet Crush were as much a Pop band as anything else, and that was the key. So were Pavement, but that’s another story.

Now these days it might be Exeter city streets instead of a windswept Troon beach that accompanies the sounds, but thirteen years after that first encounter, there’s a new Velvet Crush album playing in my headphones, and it sounds just as sweet. Stereo Blues (Action Musik) is filled with a bunch of Chastain / Menck songs that meld a love of Television, Sonic Youth, Big Star, The Byrds, Raspberries and a million and one other Rock and Power Pop geniuses into a confection that brims and buzzes with delicious sugar encrusted electric energy. Now I remember being so excited by a previous Velvet Crush album where they did a cover version of the Doug Dillard / Gene Clark classic ‘Why Not Your Baby’. It seemed to me that anyone who recognised that particular moment of Pop history knew the score. So whilst Stereo Blues stalks paths that are noisier and more fragmented than that kind of Country/Folk, it’s nevertheless important to realise that Velvet Crush are making a mature noise developed through a passionate immersion in the source texts of their Pop Cultural heritage; they make the sound of a band in love with the essence of electricity and the roots of the sounds they have grown up with and within. And it sounds mighty fine.

Even better though for me is the sound of the snow tires set by Unbunny. Here Chastain plays keyboards and bass alongside a cool crew who colour in the songs of Jared del Deo. Del Deo effectively IS Unbunny, and on snow tires he creates a gentle environment that recollects the previously mentioned Beachwood Sparks and Tyde with their sweet and mild psychedelic Country Folk inflections. Also one where Chris Bell’s (and Neil Young’s) loveliest slow sad songs ring out from distant transistor radios, a choir of ghostly school kids singing idly along. Hearing snow tires is like discovering faded old photo albums filled with sun bleached memories: world worn, weary, but ultimately uplifting, and all the better for it. This is certainly one of those slow burning albums that will haunt you for months and that end the year as being one of the choicest picks. Pick it up now.

Another of Chastain and Menck’s previous incarnations is available on the Hey Wimpus!: The Early Recordings Of... set. Now I’ve not heard it myself yet, but I think it’s essentially the same material released in the early ’90s by the Subway label as Choo Choo Train. Now I vaguely remember Choo Choo Train as being another one of those lovely dumb sounding bubblegum Pop bands like The Flatmates (that’s a compliment, in case you were wondering), and I’d really like to hear this reissued set. Certainly I’m sure that groups like Choo Choo Train and Flatmates must have influenced The Frenchmen, whose Sorry We Ruined Your Party album (Claire records) played a fair bit round these parts during the summer. Hell, they even do a storming version of the Flatmates’ ‘Tell me Why’ if its proof you needed… Now I have no idea why I never mentioned it before, but it’s one of those records that’s been sitting out for months, doing the rounds of the various resting places in the Geek Lair: yellow desk to white table to top of the record player to the pile on comics shelf number 1 and back to the yellow table… each time gathering a ‘I should really write something about this cos it rules’ mumble from within. So now I’m saying it: The Frenchmen rule for the 25 minutes it takes for these 12 tracks to Snap, Crackle and POP! (insert other indiepop clichés here at will ­ they are sure to be spot on target!) their way into your heart. The Frenchmen remind me of the first time I heard Tiger Trap, Talulah Gosh, Beat Happening, Cub, Henry’s Dress and a hundred and one others, and that should be more than good enough for anyone. The Frenchmen make Pop music for everyone who hates pop music, rock music for everyone who hates Rock music. And what could be simpler than that?

© 2004 Alistair Fitchett