Call it indie rock, power pop, alternative country or what you will, the Velvet Crush’s fourth album contains 13 strongly crafted, original pop songs full of effervescence and emotion.
The two founding band members – vocalist-bassist Paul Chastain and drummer Ric Menck – have operated with a semirevolving lineup since their 1989 debut. Here most of the players are new, with co-producer Matthew Sweet, a longtime friend of the band, also sharing musical duties and co-writing two songs.
Full of classic pop melodies and straightforward backup on guitar and drums, Free Expression is heavy on the power jangle that Sweet’s famous for. Chastain isn’t particularly strong vocally, but his clear, earnest voice is a good match for the wistful (yet hopeful) lyrical content.
The opening tune, "Kill Me Now," is a head bouncer from the jingle-jangle intro to the final power chord. "Heaven Knows" and "Gentle Breeze" are flavored with a countrified twang. With background chirps accompanying the spare acoustic guitar, "Things Get Better" is a lovely takeoff on the Beatles’ "Blackbird." Ultra-catchy "Melody #1" features a multihorn intro and ’60s-style organ riffs, at once both retro and modern.
But let’s set aside vocal quality and production – in pop music, it’s all about the song. The ultimate test of a pop song’s worth is the spontaneous and uncontrollable desire to hear it played over again, and a good portion of Free Expression passes this test. One or two songs get extra credit for inspiring an unconscious humming of the refrain long after the last listen.