Free Expression (Bobsled Records)

In contrast to the iconic hippie van of the '60s, power pop brought back the convertible, as if to pick up its date in music history. It saw the cultural polarization of flashback and throwback. Of course, if you call a pop band a "throwback," you risk being strangled by a skinny tie. Watch your neck around Ric Menck and Paul Chastain. Together and separately, in combos like the Springfields and the Choo Choo Train, and now Velvet Crush, they've been a tireless lobby for a catchy tune in every house.

What's interesting is the way they've relied on pop conventions while eschewing its trappings, and vice versa. For instance, Velvet Crush's second album, the flop Teenage Symphonies to God, took a Brian Wilson quote as its title and labeled the cartoon-happy cover with an ironic (nostalgic?) "file under pop vocal" instruction. At the same time, the music wrapped itself in a Gram Parsons country-rock flag, as if to wear the stars of a critic's icon. It was actually a wonderful record in spots, but the twang was worn like a high-pitched hairstyle -- to be grown out of the next day.

Menck and Chastain (who seems to do most of the lead vocals) sing in shifting octaves of helium without flying away. And once again they wear the wimp tag as if it were a purple heart. But are they heroes or Forrest Gumps? Or both? The best pop ever -- Big Star, Shoes and Dwight Twilley -- used the style as the perfect vehicle for a higher form of expression, as Dylan did with the blues. By contrast, Velvet Crush's expression is pop itself. They're saying nothing but that they love the music.

Yet Free Expression (is the title a double-entendre plea?) is the best Velvet Crush album yet. Exploiting its self-aware muse, the combo looks further inward. But rather than discover new emotions, they scavenge for new sounds. Matthew Sweet produced Free Expression, and the rut-bound popster always had a symbiotic rapport with Menck and Chastain. Sweet's a better tunesmith than either but a far less interesting one. In addition to co-writing two songs, he fleshes out the often anemic concepts of Velvet Crush.

Reciprocally, Menck and Chastain expand Sweet's one-trick, multitracked mind. But beneath the pop intelligence, there sometimes lurks an undermining density: As pretty as "Roman Candle" is, Chastain is burning it at both ends. Though his voice has sounded wimpier before, the chorus (which doesn't, incidentally, contain the title) gloats in sugary nothingness. "Melody #1" (co-written with Sweet) uses horns in a perky, uninvasive way. Velvet Crush still have an audible crush on Parsons -- "Heaven Knows" could haven fallen off one of Sweetheart of the Rodeo's wild horses -- but they gallop to their own gourmet. Living up, at last, to their Paul-and-Ric-are-god potential, Velvet Crush are back in a big way. They've re-created pop in their own image. If that's a throwback, it's worth the trip.