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Special Gifts To Us: The Velvet Teen elevate three- minute songs to pop divinity.

A Special Gift to You

The world outside Sonoma County finally gets its share of Velvet Teen

By Sara Bir

I THINK THE first time I saw the Velvet Teen was in 2000, at a sparsely attended afternoon pizza party at the now-defunct Inn of the Beginning in Cotati, back when the band was still "that new thing Judah's doing." Last Saturday, on the final night of the group's first coast-to-coast tour, it played in Petaluma to a packed Phoenix Theatre, with fans ranging from the typical sneaker-clad teenagers to adults sprouting gray hair.

But even if I lived in Alaska and had never seen the Velvet Teen to begin with, I'd still love them. It is impossible to keep such mesmerizingly sincere and unabashedly gorgeous songs from getting under your skin and into your heart, and at a time when indie rock is dotted with staid and pretentious bands, music that you can so effortlessly attach yourself to is a rare treat.

The Velvet Teen's escalating recognition is most immediately a result of the release of its debut full-length album, Out of the Fierce Parade, in March. An opening slot with Death Cab for Cutie on the first night of this year's prestigious Noise Pop festival in San Francisco only added to the buzz. The bulk of that momentum, however, is a passionate word-of-mouth campaign fueled by frantically downloaded MP3s and spellbinding live shows; the band's recent tour recruited not only new fans but also allowed those already familiar with the recorded material their first glimpse of live Velvet Teen.

"I've been on a few tours with different bands, and this is the only tour I've been on where there was at least one person there that knew our songs and was there to see us," says Josh Staples, the group's bassist. "At one show, a couple of people drove, like, six hours, from Iowa to Nebraska. Out of 30 shows, there were only a couple ones that were kinda lame, and there were still people that were there to see us--otherwise, they could have been way lamer, if there was nobody there."

All three members have been playing in Sonoma County bands for years: main Velvet Teen singer/songwriter Judah Nagler joined the ska outfit Tin Circus in high school before playing bass in the arty/geek-rock Little Tin Frog.

Nagler and Little Tin Frog drummer Logan Whitehurst began to write very nongeek rock songs together as a secret side project; when Little Tin Frog broke up, the side project became the Secret Band. Josh Staples, who played in the Conspiracy, Edaline and the Wunder Years, came on as bass player, and the trio became the Velvet Teen (which had previously been the name of Nagler's electronica-infused side project).

After the self-released EP The Great Best February and the Immortality 7-inch on Petaluma's Pandacide Records, the Velvet Teen went to Seattle for a week to record Out of the Fierce Parade with Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla. That the first pressing of the album sold out and left some stores temporarily out of CDs proves how listeners have taken to the band.

Instead of knitting their brows to create something completely original yet contrived, the members of the Velvet Teen are not afraid of allowing their songs to sound pretty, embracing the traditional structure of a pop song instead of sparring with it.

Their respect for choruses, bridges, hooks and vocal harmonies is such that they elevate three-minute songs to the holy stratosphere where Lennon/McCartney and Goffin/King compositions float in ethereal pop divinity. Critics toss around references to Radiohead (falsetto vocals), Jeff Buckley (soaring ballads) and Smashing Pumpkins (flashes of big guitar), and while there is validity in all these comparisons, I think it marginalizes the prowess of the Velvet Teen's own gifts, which stratify catchiness with profundity to create a sound very much its own.

Out of the Fierce Parade is an excellent, powerfully beautiful album, produced and performed with a subtlety that galvanizes the strength of the melodies and the pensive nature of the lyrics. Nagler's vocals have the restraint of a weeping angel, propelling songs that are sparse and lush at the same time.

The album's spot-on pacing weaves through the spine-tingling opening ballad "A Special Gift to You" to the upbeat rocker "Radiapathy" to "Into the Open Air," a gilded anthem that marks the centerpiece of the album and may be the most arresting rock & roll song ever written in 6/8 time.

"They have this incredible dynamic where each song is the polar opposite of the previous track, and their live show brings it all together," says Ezra Caraeff of Slowdance Records, the Velvet Teen's Portland-based label. "If they continue to relentlessly tour, they will become a very well-received band. I've never met a band in my life who has been so organized and determined, plus, when it comes down to it, they just really like to play music."

And playing music they will be; with a short tour with the Gloria Record coming in mid-May and a possible jaunt to Canada in June, The Velvet Teen will have no shortage of time to spend in its sweet-ass van, a mighty touring machine complete with a television, a Dustbuster and a temporarily broken speedometer.

"We've put 30,000 miles on it in the past eight months, and it seems to be doing fine," says Josh. And the Velvet Teen seems no worse for the wear, either.

The Velvet Teen will play a teens-only show May 11 in Palo Alto at the Mitchell Park Teen Center and at Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco on May 17 with the Gloria Record.

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From the April 25-May 1, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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