In the Darwinian egosystem of rock 'n' roll, survival depends on musical instincts, and they don't come any keener than those of The Verve Pipe. Since the early 90's, this formidable alliance of alpha males has thrived by making music their way, with two indie and two RCA albums to their credit. Some observers have had trouble categorizing The Verve Pipe's music, mostly because the band itself has steadfastly refused to be pinned down. However, fans have long understood what The Verve Pipe is all about: great songs performed from the heart. That same prescription holds true on UNDERNEATH, the band's new RCA album, and their most upbeat to date.
Produced by Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne, Ivy), UNDERNEATH marks the latest step in the band's personal evolution, the result being the band's most accessible and pleasingly immediate collection of songs yet. "The intention always was to raise the bar, melodically and lyrically," says lead singer/guitarist/songwriter Brian Vander Ark, who was thrilled by the fruitful partnership between band and producer. "This is such a volatile band, we needed someone like Adam, who wasn't so much a father figure as a brother figure who would make fun of us when we started to argue."
Any creative tension that went into the making of the album proved profitable in the end. "What we did was take a hammer and chisel to these songs," says drummer/songwriter Donny Brown, "and chip away until they were right." Brian and Donny remain the principal songwriters, though everyone in the band - including keyboardist Doug Corella and guitarist A.J. Dunning - writes and contributes to arrangements. As for the new album, the songs alternate between the darkly atmospheric and the radiantly sunny. "This is a big 180 from the last one in terms of simplicity and sound," notes A.J., contrasting UNDERNEATH with The Verve Pipe's 1999 self-titled release.
That simplicity masks the band's mastery of songcraft. The album kicks off with Brian's "Only Words," a bitter diatribe accented by subtle soul influences and a dazzling polyphonic chorus. Donny's "Never Let You Down" is one of the album's most endearing tracks thanks to a hook-laden chorus and an unabashed spirit of joy. "I Want All Of You" is an ode of innocent, unabashed love for a woman, underscored by Corella's mordant keyboards, while "Miles Away" presents a sense of drama in a lament over a fractured love affair. The rocker "Happiness Is" features an irresistible Beatlesque chorus while the snarling "Medicate Myself" exemplifies The Verve Pipe's wry sense of humor. Tracks like "Gotta Move On" and "Wonderful Waste" both offer sardonic looks at latter-day relationships, while ballads like "Colorful" and "Underneath" provide glimpses of love's redemption.
The genesis of The Verve Pipe can be traced back to 1990, when Brian Vander Ark and his brother Brad began making names for themselves in Grand Rapids, MI, with their band Johnny With An Eye. Watching them closely was drummer Donny Brown, whose rival band, Water From The Pool, kept both ensembles in peak form. Eventually, Donny joined forces with the Vander Ark brothers and The Verve Pipe was born.
With their own indie label LMNO Pop!, The Verve Pipe released a debut album I've Suffered a Head Injury in 1992, followed in 1993 by Pop Smear. Though self-distributed, both CDs together sold more than 50,000 copies, quickly drawing major label attention. After signing with RCA, the band released their 1996 platinum-certified album Villains, which spawned the Top 10 Modern Rock hit "Photograph" and the #1 multi-format gold single "The Freshmen." The Verve Pipe opened for Kiss on a European tour and did an extensive headline U.S. tour of their own.
After over 300 dates in support of Villains, the band started writing again, with the song "1229 Sheffield" appearing on the soundtrack to the film "Clay Pigeons," and "Her Ornament" featured on the gold-selling "Great Expectations" soundtrack. Another milestone came when the song "Blow You Away" highlighted the soundtrack album for "The Avengers," a song on which Brian collaborated with one of his heroes, XTC's Andy Partridge. Brian also spent time in front of the cameras, playing a country singer in the independent film "Road Kill" and producing and acting in the independent film "Mergers and Acquisitions."
In July of 1999, The Verve Pipe released their musically adventurous self-titled second album, which led to another exhausting round of international touring. From there, several band members branched out into a variety of interesting ventures, including Doug Corella's multiple gallery exhibitions of his photography, Brian's continued forays into acting (he also appears in the films "Crossover" and "Rock Star"), Donny's writing and producing for some promising Michigan bands such as 19 Wheels, and original bassist Brad Vander Ark departing the band to pursue other artistic interests ("He's become a bit of a millennium beatnik," says Brian affectionately of his brother).
Now, Brian, Donny, Doug and A.J. have refocused their energies entirely on the task ahead: getting their new music to fans and paying them a nice long visit via an extensive national tour. "This is such a summer record," says Brian of the new album. "We're totally enjoying ourselves and not taking things so seriously. But there's a lot of depth to these songs, and we're really looking forward to pulling them off live." Adds Doug, "We're anxious to get going. Our fans have wanted some new music for a long time, and now they're gonna get it. I think they'll be pleased."