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Members include Jeffrey Borchardt (a.k.a. Jeffrey Underhill; born Jeffrey Scott Borchardt on July 27, 1963, in Rockford, IL; son of Lee Borchardt and Dana Johnson; married Lisa Dermanouelin [a musician] on October 27, 1997; children: a daughter; left group, 1997), guitar, vocals; Paul Chastain, bass, vocals; Ric Menck, drums, vocals; Peter Phillips (joined group, 1997), guitar. Addresses: Record companies--Action Musik Recording Co., P.O. Box 2227, Toluca Lake, CA 91610-9227; Parasol Records, 303 West Griggs St., Urbana, IL 61801, phone: (217) 344-8652, e-mail: parasol@parasol.com. Website--Velvet Crush Official Website: http://www.velvetcrushrockgroup.com. E-mail--velcrush@aol.com.

An American band that is generally categorized as power pop, a musical style that blends ultra-melodic, infectious songs with harder-edged musical accompaniment, Velvet Crush has been noted for expanding the genre to include country rock, hard rock, and soft rock, while retaining their artistic vision and the essential qualities of great pop music. Founded in 1989, the band is led by drummer/vocalist Ric Menck and bassist/lead vocalist Paul Chastain. Initially a trio with guitarist/vocalist Jeffrey Borchardt (a.k.a. Underhill), Velvet Crush has had a series of revolving fourth members, notably Borchardt's replacement, guitarist Peter Phillips, and power poppers Matthew Sweet, Mitch Easter, David Gibbs, Tommy Keene, and Adam Schmitt. Sweet, Easter, and Schmitt also have produced records for the group. Characterized by jangly, crunchy guitars, high harmonies, and catchy hooks, the songs of Velvet Crush are noted for their variety of moods, as well as their thoughtful lyrics, highlighted by Chastain's gritty tenor vocals and Menck's powerful drumming. The band's music has reflected a wide variety of influences, most notably from 1960s and 1970s pop, rock, and country artists. The group also has incorporated more aggressive sounds from pre-punk, punk, arena rock, and alternative rock into their music, as well as softer, more acoustic-based fare. They have also been acknowledged as fine interpreters of the songs of other musicians.

A "Crush" on Pop

Chastain and Menck met as students in Champaign, Illinois, and the pair began performing together, in addition to working solo and with other groups. In 1984 Menck's band, the Chicago-based Reverbs, released The Happy Forest, an album on the Metro-America/Enigma label. Menck's work with the Reverbs led to a friendship with Matthew Sweet, whose band Buzz of Delight was in friendly competition with the Reverbs. Menck also became friends with Mitch Easter, a recording artist and producer whose work he admired, at around the same time. In 1984 Chastain released Halo, a six-song independent EP that reflected his love of bands such as the Beatles and R.E.M. Menck then formed the Picture Book label in order to release his own material as well as that of his friends, including Chastain. The pair recorded solo material as well as singles under various group names, such as Choo Choo Train, the Springfields, and the Paint Set. The Springfields' music was released in the United Kingdom by Sarah Records, a now-legendary independent label located in Bristol, England. One of the bands that had its singles released by Menck's Picture Book label was the Milwaukee-based White Sisters, which featured guitarist Jeffrey Borchardt. Menck and Chastain became friends with the guitarist, and when Borchardt, who also used the surname Underhill, moved to Providence, Rhode Island, in 1988, the pair followed. The next year, the trio formed Velvet Crush.

Greatness Achieved

In 1990 Velvet Crush released its first single, "If Not True/One Thing Two Believe" for the indie label Bus Stop Records. The next year they released their debut album on Ringers Lactate Records. Produced by Sweet in his living room studio, In the Presence of Greatness was filled with enthusiasm, punk energy, and Borchardt's slashing chords. Their stellar debut earned Velvet Crush a deal with Creation Records, an English label that was home to such acts as Oasis and Teenage Fanclub. Stewart Mason of All Music Guide called In the Presence of Greatness "a straight-up piece of '90s power pop," adding that it "sounds like Big Star's #1 Record updated for a new decade." Ira Robbins of Trouser Press concluded, "As far as Greatness goes, this is the real thing." The band's next album, Teenage Symphonies to God, was Velvet Crush's only major-label release. Issued on Epic in 1994, Symphonies was produced by Mitch Easter, who was well known for leading the alternative pop band Let's Active and for producing R.E.M. Writing in All Music Guide, Stephen Thomas Erlewine described Symphonies as "filled with ultra-melodic guitar hooks and simple, memorable melodies." Matt Dorman of Comes with a Smile later commented, "It's widely accepted among the pop community that Teenage Symphonies to God... remains [Velvet Crush's] defining statement."

Velvet Crush Crushed

After the release of Teenage Symphonies to God, Velvet Crush seemed poised to become the band that brought power pop to the mainstream. The record received positive reviews, and the group developed a reputation as a particularly effective live act. However, Velvet Crush's subsequent album, Heavy Changes, was rejected by both Epic and Creation for its lack of commercial appeal. After their band was dropped, Velvet Crush hit the road; their live show was documented in Rock Concert, a recording from 1995 that was released in 2000. Velvet Crush developed major followings in Japan, Scandinavia, and Spain, and also toured as Sweet's backing band. In 1997, exhausted from years of touring, the group broke up. Menck moved to Los Angeles to work as a studio musician, Chastain moved back to Champaign, and Borchardt stayed in Providence. In the meantime, Heavy Changes, which had been released in Japan by Sony, began to garner positive reviews from Japanese record-buyers. After a period of recuperation, Menck and Chastain decided to re-form Velvet Crush. Borchardt elected to stay in Rhode Island, and the band chose Peter Phillips, a guitarist who had appeared on Heavy Changes, as his permanent replacement. Menck and Chastain formed their own label, Action Musik, distributed by Parasol Records, to release Heavy Changes domestically. Issued in 1998, Heavy Changes was what the band called their "blues" album. Though praised for its creativity and boldness, Heavy Changes may have been too much of a departure for the group, and is usually considered the group's least successful offering.

Back on Track

In 1999 Velvet Crush recorded Free Expression for Bobsled Records. Again produced by Sweet, the record was considered a welcome return to form. Influenced by West Coast groups such as Love, Buffalo Springfield, and Beachwood Sparks, Free Expression was Velvet Crush's version of California music. Calling the album "pop perfection," Dennis Cook of Pause Record stated, "For better than 10 years, this band has churned out some of the best music around. For those not already card-carrying members of their love cult, this is the train to hop on." Writing in Pitchfork, Joe Tangari concluded that Free Expression "represents Velvet Crush at their apex."

In 2002 Velvet Crush released Soft Sounds, a work that began as a Chastain solo project. The album, which featured production by Sweet as well as an appearance by Underhill on drums rather than guitar, eschewed the band's trademark six-string pop for a more keyboard-driven, lower-key approach. Patrick Berkery of Seattle Weekly called Soft Sounds "a delicious, blowing-through-the-jasmine-of-your-mind soft-rock trip." In 2004 Velvet Crush released Stereo Blues, which was intended as a raucous rock record similar to their earlier work. The album was produced by the band and Adam Schmitt, a power-pop solo artist who had worked with Menck in the group Pop the Balloon in the early 1980s. In 2002 Menck co-founded Reaction Recordings with the owner of Parasol Records, Geoff Merritt, in order to reissue worthy but overlooked material. The imprint reissued such artists as 1960s pop icons the Action and early 1980s garage rockers the Vertebrats.

Menck has continued to play drums for other musicians including Willie Nelson, Aimee Mann, Marianne Faithfull, Kyle Vincent, Liz Phair, Jon Brion, Jeff Murphy, Dan Castellaneta, and the Tyde. Chastain works as a session musician when he is not with Velvet Crush, and Underhill plays guitar and sings with his pop band Honeybunch and works with other artists. Starting with Heavy Changes in 1998, Chastain and Menck released new Velvet Crush albums and reissues on their Action Musik label, including a reissued version of Free Expression that includes a bonus disc, their live recording from 1995, and several compilations of Velvet Crush material. An expanded edition of In the Presence of Greatness was re-released by Too Pure in 1991 and reissued with bonus tracks by Action Musik in 2001.

Timeless Melodies

Many reviewers consider Velvet Crush to be an influential cult band that deserves much wider recognition. Although sometimes criticized for not repeating the success of their first two albums in their subsequent releases, the group has been applauded for its musical diversity, artistic growth, and ability to create appealing, well-played songs. Writing in Habits of Waste, Jeff Purdue said, "I am genuinely at a loss as to why more people don't listen to them; they seem to me to be an ideal pop band." Dan Epstein of LA Weekly commented that "money can't buy the sort of artistic excellence found on Velvet Crush's records.... Since 1989, [they] have consistently outclassed their pop contemporaries." Matt Cibula of PopMatters concluded, "If this were any kind of cool world at all, Velvet Crush would be the biggest band in it. The greatest power-pop act of all time, and the ultimate U.S. cult band of the 1990s."

by Gerard J. Senick

Velvet Crush's Career

Band formed in Providence, RI, by school friends Paul Chastain and Ric Menck, and Jeffrey Borchardt (a.k.a. Underhill), 1989; issued independent singles for Bus Stop label before releasing first album, In the Presence of Greatness, on Ringers Lactate label, 1991; signed to Epic Records in the U.S. and Creation in the U.K.; released their only major-label album, Teenage Symphonies to God, 1994; toured with groups such as Oasis, Teenage Fanclub, and the Jesus and Mary Chain to support the record; Epic and Creation dropped group, which disbanded in 1997; Chastain and Menck reformed group minus Borchardt, adding permanent member Peter Phillips; Chastain and Menck founded Action Musik, an imprint of Parasol Records; released Heavy Changes and other band-related recordings, 1998; band signed with Bobsled Records, released Free Expression, 1999; with Geoff Merritt, Menck founded Reaction Recordings to reissue additional material by other artists, 2000; band released Soft Sounds on Action Musik, 2002; issued Velvet Crush compilations on Action Musik before releasing album of new studio material, Stereo Blues, 2004.

Velvet Crush's Awards

New Musical Express listing, Top 50 Albums of the Year, for In the Presence of Greatness, 1992.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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