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Stereo Blues

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Album Review

Velvet Crush's sixth album manages the rare feat of being both a ringing success and a disappointment at the same time. The bandmembers had stated that they wanted Stereo Blues to be a return to the kind of hard-rocking records they had made previously in their career. They did it. From the first thunderous drum fill and power chord of "Rusted Star," you know you are in the presence of a big rock record. Throughout Stereo Blues there are big riffs, squalling solos, grungy quiet-verse/loud-chorus song structures, and guest shots from old friends like Nick Rudd and Adam Schmitt. Hovering over the album is the influence of Matthew Sweet, friend of the band and patron saint of big hooky rock records, having made perhaps the best one of the '90s with Girlfriend. Songs like "Do What You Want," the gritty and epic-length ballad "The Connection," "Fall Awake," "Get Yourself Awake," and "Rusted Star" are big, sparkly rock songs that sound very clean, very smooth, and very radio-ready. On a '90s alternative rock station, that is. And therein lies the problem with the album. Velvet Crush have made this album before. Stereo Blues is a backward-looking and old-sounding love letter to the early '90s, with traces of Nirvana, Girlfriend, Teenage Symphonies to God, and every big-guitared, large-chorused alternative band with a major-label record that made a beeline for the cutout bins. It is almost as if Velvet Crush retreated to the moment when they almost made it big and tried to pick up from there. Or maybe they are jumping the "I Love the '90s" bandwagon. For anyone who was thrilled by either the laid-back L.A. sound of 1999's Free Expression or the introspective and personal sound of 2002's excellent Soft Sounds, this retreat to the past comes as a big letdown — especially when compared to Soft Sounds, which had the feel of a band coming to grips with the need to change its worn-out sound and managing to do it with grace and emotion. This record has the feel of a band going through the motions. Sure, some of the motions are quite pleasing; one can't deny that Paul Chastain and Ric Menck each know how to write hooky songs ("California Incline" is an especially nice tune) and there are a couple of songs that scale back the retro ambition and sound real, like the country ballad "Great to Be Fine" and the staggering Stonesy rocker "B-Side Blues." Mostly though, this is the sound of a band that has taken a giant step backward. Backward into a past that sounds pretty good but at the cost of a future that could have sounded even better.


Formed: 1989 in Rhode Island

Genre: Alternative

Years Active: '90s, '00s

A classic power pop band in the tradition of the Raspberries and Big Star, Velvet Crush formed in Rhode Island in 1989, although their roots actually extended west to Champaign, Illinois, where vocalist/bassist Paul Chastain and drummer Ric Menck first met and began performing together. There Menck founded his own small label, Picture Book, on which he and Chastain recorded solo material as well as singles under various group names like the Springfields, Choo Choo Train, the Paint Set, and Bag-O-Shells....
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