Picture a boy — 14, maybe 15 — in black-rimmed
glasses and a band T-shirt (Blink 182? Travis? You pick!),
headphone-fitted head bobbing to the changing time signatures of
northern California’s hottest indie export. Elysium, the
sophomore LP from trio The Velvet Teen, is the perfect album for
adolescents who are starting to realize that Creed sucks but
aren’t sure what musical steps to take next.

Music Reviews

The Velvet Teen, however, are only a baby step in the right
direction. Hackneyed lyrics like “ ’Cause even the
people / That you call your friends / Can fuck you over / They
never cared” in “A Captive Audience” and bland,
uninteresting melodies don’t really distinguish
Elysium from the work of many other alt-rock bands that are
seizing radio waves and molding minds of young listeners. Perhaps
what has allowed the band to become small-scale media darlings is
that they refused to sign with a major label, thereby earning a
scattered “Hell yeah!” from suburban indie kids.

So with the freedom granted by a small label, what have The
Velvet Teen done? Write really long songs, for one. With no tracks
under three minutes (and most of them over six), no obvious single
stands out on Elysium; the album flows more as a whole work
than as a jumbled assortment of singles. This offering is trifle
more experimental than the more mainstream artists that many of The
Velvet Teen’s fans are used to: Though decidedly built on
rock ‘n’ roll, Elysium features no guitars.
Instead, the band constructs each little opus with the sounds of a
baby grand piano, various strings and a liberal sprinkling of
electronics.

It may be a heartwarming testament to artistic growth that this
twenty-something trio is spreading its small-time wings to write
larger art-rock endeavors. The problem is that the tracks simply
lack momentum and originality — vitally important features of
lengthy songs

Elysium opens with a glimmer of promise, a synth-noise
intro fading into slow, ghostly piano and a somber string
arrangements. The band does a decent job of pulling listeners into
songs and creating pretty, moving lines; but instead of arriving at
a climax, the swell of strings and falsettos only reach a
trembling, underwhelming plateau.

“Chimera Obscurant” (whose intro bears an uncanny
semblance to a certain Radiohead song about a suspicious robot), is
Elysium’s soaring epic, rounding out at almost 13
minutes. Created around piano and vocalist Judah Nagler’s
intense delivery, the song stands on its own, but without any
hurrahs. The backing vocals on all the tracks come across as
bombastic and echoing, but on “Chimera Obscura” in
particular, the production (by Nagler and brother Ephraim) makes
the background vox worthy of a Budweiser Great American Heroes
tryout tape.

Nagler is often compared to Jeff Buckley, but he only
peripherally attacks the late singer’s relaxed but highly
emotional sound. More accurately, his is a hit-or-miss imitation of
Radiohead politi-crooner Thom Yorke. But while Yorke’s vocals
add a dose of grandiosity to his music, Nagler’s less
sophisticated falsetto usually comes across as an ineffectual
whine.

The last two minutes of “Poor Celine” show the band
at its collective best. Nagler’s vocal performance conveys
that nebulous combination of optimism and melancholy that Rufus
Wainwright has mastered; here, his falsetto is truest. The piano
and strings play on a charming, twisted seesaw, and drums carry the
song through at an exploding pace.

With Elysium, the listener is constantly waiting for a
catharsis that the band seems to be on the verge of delivering. A
few malcontents may find therapy in the cryptic lyrics, while
others may be assuaged by the fact that the trio is only two albums
into their career, and have a lot of room for improvement. After
all, the boys themselves close the album with these wise words:
“Times are always changing / But life never ends.”
Maybe The Velvet Teen will use time to their advantage and keep
maturing.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars.

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