A Family Album by The Verve Pipe
Back in the days when I was in the grip of adolescent angst (a period which strangely coincided with my actual adolescence) there was no better band than The Verve Pipe. They were the one-hit wonders behind “The Freshmen,” one of the most inescapable singles of 1997, a song that haunts a wide variety of radio formats to this very day. It’s a melodramatic alternative ballad, which were a dime a dozen back then and aren’t worth a hell of a lot more now, but it was good enough to get me to buy the album, Villains. And that was good enough to get me to hunt down their earlier albums, I’ve Suffered a Head Injury and Pop Smear. Varjak got into them a little bit, and found a promo CD they released around the time of Villains that included a nice acoustic version of “Freshmen,” and a badass live cover of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and before you could say “Penny is poison but I don’t mind,” I had myself a new favorite band.
And what a tight band they were. Lead singer and songwriter Brian Vander Ark had a raspy voice that could go hard or soft, low or high, and do heartbroken or furious with equal conviction. And some of his lyrics were too good to fucking believe (especially to my 17 year-old self). The rest of the band was just as good — A.J. Dunning was a kick-ass lead guitarist, Brian’s brother Brad held down the bass, Doug Corella’s keyboard arrangements fucking made more than a few songs, and Donny Brown was a terrific drummer who showed he could also write his balls off when called upon.
They were never big sellers, apart from the “Freshmen” single, and they were largely dismissed by critics, but I didn’t give a shit. They released a self-titled album in 1999 that is still one of my favorites. Give me “La La” and “Generations” and “She Has Faces” over Britney Spears or the Bloodhound Gang or pretty much anyone else who was hot that year. Two years after that they released Underneath, their most pop album yet (and they weren’t exactly avant-garde before . . .). The single was “I Will Never Let You Down,” which got some okay airplay but never broke out. The rest of the album was decent, nothing special, with a few keepers like “Medicate Myself” but generally not much compared to their earlier stuff.
And then . . . nothing. Brian Vander Ark released a few solo albums independently which, despite a few highlights, weren’t much better than the band’s last album, but the band essentially ceased to exist. Until a few weeks ago, that is, when The Verve Pipe released their first new album in eight years through their website. Oh fuck yeah.
Wait a second . . . hang on there, Steve-o. Don’t get too excited, now. The record, titled A Family Album, is an album of . . . “family friendly songs.” Jesus-bleeding-Christ-with-a-cross-up-his-ass, a kids album?! Why not just write the soundtrack for The Princess and the Frog and get it over with? Hey, do the Jonas Brothers need an opening act?
Hold up, though — not so fast! They’re a talented bunch, that Verve Pipe. I’m sure they could produce something enjoyable to people over the age of six, even in such a limited genre.
But therein lies part of the problem. For the purposes of A Family Album, The Verve Pipe consists of Brian Vander Ark, Donny Brown, and a line-up of shemps. There’s no A.J. Dunning, no Doug Corella, nobody else I’ve ever heard of. It’s bad enough my once-favorite band’s first album in eight fucking years is a kiddie record — but they couldn’t even get the whole band in to record the fucking thing? Some guy named John Connors played bass on this. Who the fuck is John Connors?
Not that it makes much of a difference. Considering how they perform here, Vander Ark and Brown might as well have hired stand-ins, too. Whatever songwriting skills allowed Brian to produce songs like “Spoonful of Sugar” or “Cattle” seem to have totally deserted him. Most of the music isn’t bad — it’s generic, nothing you’ll be humming on your death bed, but not terrible. The lyrics, though . . . Jesus. Let me just show you, so you can dig what I’m layin’ down:
Wake up, wake up, wake up!
It’s time to go to school
Your mom and dad won’t let you be a fool.
That’s from the song called (get this, now) “Wake Up.” There’s also “Complimentary Love” . . .
Love is free to you and me
It doesn’t cost a thing to love someone
Or two or three ‘cause love is complimentary
. . . which isn’t that bad a song, so long as you interpret it as the band encouraging their young audience to take up group sex. There’s another track that works on a similar level — “Be Part of the Band,” where Vander Ark recommends pursuing a career in music instead of going to college. If you give the band the benefit of the doubt — which for me means presuming they are occasionally attempting to corrupt the youth of America without their parents knowing — the album improves, but only slightly.
I guess I should look on the bright side. No one in the band is dead or a drug addict (so far as I know), and they’re still able to make music. And perhaps the music on this album is so stupid because the intended audience is children, most of whom aren’t smart enough to keep the fucking food from falling out of their mouths. There’s a note on the website that promises a new rock record coming soon (for us grown-ups, presumably with songs on slightly more sophisticated themes than cereal or how your parents will not stop having fucking children). Hopefully the rest of the actual band can be lured into the studio for that one. In the meantime, if you want to judge for yourself, you can listen to the entire Family Album online for free at the band’s website. And if you really like it, you can order an autographed copy. But don’t get our your wallet just yet.