By Michael Henningsen
JUNE 8, 1998:
Alibi Rating Scale:
!!!!! = Tito
Paul Chastain and Ric MenckHey Wimpus!: The Early Recordings
Concurrent to the release of the long-delayed third album by the Velvet Crush, Paul Chastain and Ric Menck have finally collected their 1987 recordings as Choo Choo Train. In what might be an embarrassing twist of fate, this CD (like last year's The Ballad of Ric Menck, a compendium of late-'80s recordings under various band names) blows away anything the Velvet Crush have ever done.
Recorded for $500 and engineered by fellow Illinois wimp-pop pioneer Jeff Murphy of Shoes, these songs were originally released in dribs and drabs on British singles, which led both to Velvet Crush's signing to UK king-indie Creation and to an early-'90s bootleg LP collection called Briar High. For a decade, the Choo Choo Train singles have been the centerpiece of Chastain and Menck's legend, and for good reason: This is damn fine music.
Remember, in 1987, what Menck calls "smelly-guy rock" was ascending, culminating in the early-'90s primacy of grunge. Chiming, ebullient pop songs audibly indebted to '60s avatars like the Left Banke and Bee Gees (circa New York Mining Disaster 1941) couldn't get you arrested in the United States. In Britain, though, these singles were holy grails to the emergent twee-pop underground. Bands on Sarah, Subway and like-minded labels copied Chastain and Menck's cutesy band name, promo photos featuring umbrellas or crayons, brightly-colored retro graphics, even their flyaway bowl haircuts.
Oh yeah, and the music, too--"Briar Rose," "Big Blue Buzz," "Flower Field," "Wishing On A Star," "My Best Friend"--the titles alone evoke their sound. It's difficult to imagine British pop music today without these songs: breathy harmonies sometimes sliding ingenuously off-key, guitars alternately crystalline and fuzzy, leisurely tempos, polite volumes. Even their cover of Paul Collins' impassioned power-pop classic "Walking Out On Love" is measured enough to make it obvious that Paul Chastain and Ric Menck have probably heard the titular taunt thousands of times. But that's the taunters' loss. Anyone completely blind to the glories of this timeless music is doomed to a life less beautiful. !!!!! (SM)
Flake MusicWhen You Land Here, It's Time to Return
Flake Music's latest collection of resurgent pop gems contains their best songs to date--eight tracks the band consider "actual" songs and four more they too readily regard as segues. The record also presents Flake Music at their performing best, sending counterpoint guitars shimmering through thoughtful, introspective arrangements. Vocal passages, including a handful of brilliant harmony parts, come cascading down melodies with hooks so sharp they make the songs seem almost surreal at times.
Despite such solid groundwork, though, Flake Music failed to exercise their right to a better, more carefully attended drum sound, resulting in a disappointing, if slight, flatness. Granted, Flake Music's songs aren't designed to come careening out of stereo speakers, and the entire record was recorded in a living room in Clarksdale, Ariz. But the issue of fidelity is more complex than the simple question of volume. When You Land Here ... lacks some of the punch and equal attention given to individual instruments that would most certainly have made it drop-dead gorgeous. Jesse Sandoval is one of the most dynamic pop drummers around, but it's a fact that When You Land Here ... almost fails to get across. And for that, the record settles for being exquisitely beautiful.
"Spanway Hits," "Blast Valve," untitled track No. 7 and "The Shins" are painfully perfect. And throughout the record hums the mesmerizing buzz of instruments conjoined and players not just in tune, but in tune with each other. When You Land Here ... is more representative of how consistently extraordinary Flake Music can be than anything they've released in the past. This is the kind of record everyone wants to make until they actually do--once a masterpiece is completed, it's difficult to top. Although Flake Music have a reputation for living up to their name, they've always come through at the most vital moments. This is one of them, and you can bet there'll be more. !!!!1/2 (MH)
--Stewart Mason and Michael Henningsen
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