”We have the weirdest band,“ says Ric Menck, drummer for the classic-pop collective known as Velvet Crush. ”We’ve been going for 10 years, and we have a core following all over the world, especially in Japan and Europe, but we‘ve never really had any degree of success.“

Alas, the good Mr. Menck proves overly modest. For while he and co-conspirator Paul Chastain haven’t any mansions or gold records to show for their time in the rock trenches, money just can‘t buy the sort of artistic excellence found on Velvet Crush’s records. Since 1989, Velvet Crush — essentially Menck and singer-guitarist Chastain, abetted by a revolving cast of luminaries that has included Matthew Sweet, Mitch Easter, Tommy Keene, the Gigolo Aunts‘ Dave Gibbs, and longtime guitarist Jeffrey Underhill — have consistently outclassed their pop contemporaries with joyful playing, emotionally resonant songwriting and a refreshing willingness to let their music evolve with each album.

The bite of early Big Star and the jangle of classic Byrds have always constituted the twin pillars of the Velvet Crush sound, but the band’s releases have proved remarkably diverse: 1991‘s roaring In the Presence of Greatness may have painted the band as America’s answer to Teenage Fanclub, buta 1994‘s Teenage Symphonies to God drew heavily on country-rock and early punk, and 1998’s Heavy Changes was, in Menck‘s words, ”all about Mott the Hoople, Derek and the Dominoes, and the MC5.“ Through it all, Menck’s distinctively loose-limbed drumming and Chastain‘s plaintive, high-pitched vocals have served as identifiable constants amid the stylistic shape-shifting.

”We always wanted to establish a group sound,“ says Menck, ”but I wanted us to try and push it as far as we could, and somehow encompass all of our influences. The bands I really love don’t make the same record every time, you know?“

With Free Expression, the band‘s new release on Bobsled Records, the Velvet Crush sound makes yet another metamorphosis. Recorded at the Hollywood Hills home of longtime compadre Matthew Sweet (who also co-produced and played on the album), Free Expression mixes hard-riffing electric pop with gentle acoustic musings and gorgeous ”cosmic country“ reveries in a ByrdsBurritos vein. A roseate glow emanates from the whole affair, making Free Expression the sort of record that’s best enjoyed with the sun streaming through your living-room window. According to Menck, who relocated to Los Angeles from Rhode Island three years ago, the album‘s agreeably relaxed vibe was partially inspired by local faves Beachwood Sparks.

”Right after I moved here, I walked into the Whisky one night and saw Beachwood Sparks up there onstage, looking just like the fucking Byrds. It was like having a good dream, you know? They influenced me in a subtle way, because they made me go back and listen to the Buffalo Springfield, Love, Notorious Byrd Brothers, and that helped Paul and me form the pattern of what we wanted for the record. We wanted to get away from hard rock and make it more melodic, laid-back and multidimensional.“ A reaction against the rough-edged approach of Heavy Changes, Free Expression is also a sigh of relief — a musical acknowledgment that Velvet Crush’s hardest days are now behind them.

”We recorded Heavy Changes during a real bleak period,“ says Menck. ”We‘d been on the road a long time, and everybody was breaking up with their girlfriend; and then, when we finished the album, Creation [the band’s label at the time] said, ‘We don’t want to put this out.‘“ In need of some extra cash and a chance to clear their heads, Menck and Chastain put aside their project to tour with Sweet.

”During that Matthew tour,“ says Menck, ”my first reaction was to say, ’Let‘s just stop.’ But then we‘d meet all these kids who’d say, ‘Hey, when is the new Velvet Crush record coming out?’ So we decided to keep going. I moved out here, and Paul decided to stay in Rhode Island, but we realized that we‘d been doing this for such a long time, we don’t even have to talk about it anymore. We could just write songs, make a record at Matthew‘s house, and it would sound cool — it wouldn’t sound like a high-tech studio, but it would have its own vibe.“

With Menck and Chastain now settled comfortably into their new bicoastal routine, future Velvet Crush tours seem to be pretty much out of the question, at least for a while. Instead, Menck is choosing to forge a career as a studio drummer; in addition to playing on Sweet‘s forthcoming In Reverse, he’s recently done sessions for Aimee Mann, Willie Nelson and teen babe Jennifer Love Hewitt. ”She can really sing,“ Menck says. ”She could make an amazing pop record if someone gave her a bunch of good songs.“ Sounds like Ms. Hewitt could benefit from a little Free Expression.

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