Before I go into any sort of rambling (or otherwise) critique of this release and the band in question, I should mention this is not a new Velvet Crush album, or career-spanning anthology, rather an addendum and/or companion to their 1994 full length Teenage Symphonies to God.
First, let’s put things into perspective. Back in the mid ’90s, as if it wasn’t enough to have to contend with a whole ‘nother dominant strain of rock and roll (grunge, duh) consider how much competition Velvet Crush had in their own power-pop wheelhouse – Teenage Fanclub, The Posies, Adam Schmitt, The Gigolo Aunts, Material Issue, Matthew Sweet, Greenberry Woods, Lemonheads, Jellyfish – and to boot, a recently reunited and recalibrated Big Star were all crowding the pool. Comprised of Ric Menck, Paul Chastain and Jeffrey Borchardt, the Providence, RI-situated three-piece still managed to make a dent, albeit not a commercially seismic one.
Named after a Brian Wilson rumination, Teenage Symphonies… followed up their independently issued, ’91 debut, In the Presence of Greatness, not to mention a bevy of singles (“Butterfly Position” anyone?). Released under the auspices of Creation Records in England and Sony in the States, Symphonies… didn’t waft out of stores as briskly as say, Cracked Rear View or Jagged Little Pill, yet it seemed like everyone who encountered it experienced something on the level of a revelation. The choice of Mitch Easter as producer was more than apropos, given that Menck and Chastain had teamed up about a decade prior in VC-antecedent bands like Choo Choo Train, who owed more than a wink and a nod to “new music” acts like Let’s Active and Game Theory, whom Easter had either performed with or produced. But there was more to this album than tricky jangle maneuvers and oblique prose. Forward thinking as Velvet Crush were, they revered elders like Alex Chilton and Roger McGuinn to the hilt. In fact, Symphonies… was remarkably linear and streamlined, yet never succumbed to anything rote or routine. Lived-in perhaps, but hardly another day at the office. Some 22 years on, this deftly crafted thing of beauty, hooks, and then some is frequently regarded as the trio’s finest hour (give or take twenty minutes).
That brings us to Pre-teen Symphonies, which again, isn’t a reissue of the aforementioned TStG, rather a collection of eight demos, the bulk of which would eventually be re-cut for the album. As far as prototypes go, the nuances between the demos and the final album takes are often subtle. Nonetheless, seasoned ears will pick up on the frenetic fervor pumping through rawer, nascent stabs of some of the album’s more assertive selections, specifically “My Blank Pages” and “This Life’s Killing Me.” Teenage Symphonies…, mind you, didn’t merely contain visceral rockers, but some consoling comedowns as well – “Time Wraps Around You” and “Weird Summer,” both appearing here in their rough-cut incarnations. As to whether which versions are superior, that’s for you to decide, but the inclusion of two very capable album-worthy outtakes “Not Standing Down” and “Turn Down” are sure to be universally embraced by aficionados of Chastain and Co.
The second half of this collection concerns an eight-song excerpt from a ’94 Chicago performance at the Metro, and an FM broadcast at that. Not only does it exude more Teenage gold – “Atmosphere” and “Hold Me Up” to name a couple, the set revisits relatively old-school VC nuggets “Window to the World” along with “Ash and Earth.” The proverbial cherry on top is a faithful run through 20/20’s signature piece “Remember the Lightning.”