This one is maybe a little too out there: Rhino Records and Chronical Books have paired up to release 12 CDs of Cosmic Grooves this month. Each release will feature a booklet detailing personality aspects, insights and other astrological details for each birth sign. The CDs will include popular songs "reflecting the characteristics of that sign." For example, Sagittarians are traditionally adventurous and leisurely, so they are reflected in this series with songs like The Monkees’ "Last Train to Clarksville" whereas quick tempered Scorpios get Foreigner’s "Hot Blooded." Sounds like a marketing stretch to me…
On the local front, downstate label Parasol has reissued CDs documenting the past of Velvet Crush, the chimey alternative guitar power pop band that centers around singer/bassist Paul Chastain and drummer Ric Menck, who have served as Matthew Sweet’s backing band for the past decade. Velvet Crush’s own independent CDs have gotten plenty of recording support from Sweet, though VC’s attack is less polished and radio-friendly than Sweet’s. Parasol has re-issued much of the band’s early material, including the band’s Rolling Stone-heralded first disc, In The Presence of Greatness with three bonus tracks. The disc was originally released on Creation Records and was recorded by Sweet in a tiny eight-track studio. Parasol has also released A Single Odyssey, a collection of Velvet Crush’s non-LP singles and EP tracks recorded between 1990-2000, as well as Rock Concert, Heavy Changes and Hey Wimpus: The Early Recordings Of Paul Chastain & Ric Menck.
It was the early ‘90s, and Champaign-Urbana was the current "hot spot" for record company cherry picking. Velvet Crush got themselves picked up by the hip Creation label. Local faves Titanic Love Affair and Last Gentlemen, who’d been playing around town for several years, landed major label deals, taking them from the cornfields to tour the often equally lonely alternative rock/tiny bar circuit. And The Elvis Brothers, who’d already put out two rockabilly-based records on Portrait in the mid-‘80s had picked up a fourth member, in the latter half of that decade, a young wunderkind named Adam Schmitt, who they hoped would add that crucial element to their mix that would nab them another shot at the big time.
When I was in school at the University of Illinois in Urbana in the ‘80s, I watched all of these artists developing on the stage of places like Mabel’s and Trito’s. To have them releasing "real albums" shortly after my own graduation from the downstate scene was exciting, and I covered all of their discs in the early years of this column. Ultimately, none of those downstate acts ended up achieving the kind of chart success that their labels hoped for (have you ever heard Titanic Love Affair or Last Gentlemen on the radio?) and Elvis Brothers never got their third shot (a local label released their third and final album Recession, in 1992).
But at about the same time as Titanic Love Affair and Last Gentlemen were taking their shots, Adam Schmitt was also bowing with his. His guitar pop gem of a debut, World So Bright came out on Reprise in 1991 and begged comparisons to the reclusive pop genius of Todd Rundgren and Lindsey Buckingham (it remains one of my favorite pop rock records a decade later). A car accident and a hard breakup led to a less "Bright" tone on his followup, 1993’s Illiterature, which turned up the guitars a bit louder, but also offered a Lennonesque piano ballad of incredible heartaching power ("Shreds").
But like the rest of the vibrant turn-of-the-‘90s Champaign-Urbana musical success stories, which also included the more alternative rock of Poster Children and ambient flavor of The Moon Seven Times, Schmitt’s strong pop-rock songwriting never broke out of the box at stores or radio. It was the wrong sound at the wrong time – the world suddenly couldn’t get enough of "grunge" from Seattle. Nirvana and Pearl Jam were taking over, and the airwaves had little interest in chimey power pop anthems. Reprise dropped Schmitt after Illiterature, and he retired to behind-the-boards work, producing and engineering records for new independent artists like The Suede Chain and Hum (who also got a major label shot late in the ‘90s), and working with indie stalwarts like guitarist Tommy Keene. The music world moved on.
Urbana’s independent Parasol label, which has produced a steady stream of downstate CDs for years, gave Schmitt a standing offer to release his third CD, but he couldn’t seem to make up his mind on what to release. In 1998, he compiled a song list for an album called The Race of All Races. He kept toying with these songs and recording new ones and by 1999 was calling the upcoming release Treefalling. He worked on producing other artists in the studio. By 2000, he was back to stage one, deciding to go back to his original set of songs, remix them, and release an album called Demolition.
The result of all this woodshedding is an album that sounds like an extension of his first two records, albeit eight years past its time. The opener, "See Me Fall," was written back in his Reprise days (I have a demo tape of it that Schmitt gave me during an interview from that period). It’s a bittersweet bit of guitar pop with a light guitar solo and an achingly powerful chorus about a man in love who wonders if there is any reciprocation: "Can you see me fall/can you feel me at all?"
"Brilliance in Failure" puts together some twining ‘70s AM radio guitars with a lyric that looks at how we want to be versus how we really are: "so here’s your answer/so here’s your truth/your only failure was being you."
"Visited" finds Schmitt at his hardest, dropping his vocals into a deep echoing pit as the guitars grind in a vicious riff, not far from the territory staked out by Illiterature’s "Listen". But the "anger" is quickly over, as he seques back into lightly picked guitar for the ambling "Second Story" which has the same lilting quality as "Elizabeth Einstein" from World So Bright.
Then it’s full rock glory with the breakup advice of "Let’s Make This Easy," a crunchy prize that Parasol released earlier this year on a label sampler (reviewed here on July 5th). In "Want Ad" he offers a bevy of beautiful background harmonies as he makes his "personals" offer to the world: "how about a broken heart/would you like one to/I’ve got one for you?"
Maybe because of his bad experience with being a "pop star hopeful" in the early ‘90s, or maybe simply because of a reclusive personality, Schmitt often explores themes of alienation and loneliness in his lyrics. In "Alone on a Crashing Plane" he deals with gulf that divides us all ("we’re all alone on a crashing plane/isolated forever") and in "World As Enemy" he sings of our standing outside the herd: "they gather round their campfire/I shiver in my cave/with the fear of the tribe."
Demolition reaches its peak with "Timeless," a singsong ballad that’s a sister to his previous piano ballads "Shreds" and "Lost." Here, Schmitt pulls off the guitar blanket to reveal the strong piano chords and to feature his affecting vocals front and center as he sings a very personal love song, asking a lover to: "sing me an old fashioned love song like it’s new/we once knew all the words but nobody heard us singing/everything else, make it all just go away."
If there’s a flaw in Demolition, it’s that it only runs 10 songs, and since these are all home studio recordings, the mechanical quality of the drum machines tends to add a sterility to these tracks that a full band recording would liven up. And while all of these songs are catchy, often working in the category of "crunchy power pop anthems," the disc doesn’t show much growth in Schmitt’s sonic palette over the past decade. Demolition sounds like a collection of songs leftover from the same period as his past two records – which, for the most part, it is. But any fan of power pop should own all three of Schmitt’s releases. With any luck, at some point Parasol will eventually be able to offer reissues of his first two discs for newcomer fans, as well as Demolition. And here’s hoping that this return to releasing his own music will unleash a floodgate of new recordings.
In my book, the loss of Schmitt from the recording scene in the ‘90s was one of the greatest losses to pop music. Now that he’s back, I can’t wait to hear where he’ll go next.
For more information on Demolition, check his label’s site at www.parasol.com.