Radio Waves

The Aqua Velvets

Milan Records, 2001

REVIEW BY: George Agnos


The newest release from the instrumental combo known as the Aqua Velvets helped answer a question I once had: whatever happened to the pop instrumental? My next question still has yet to be answered: why did the pop instrumental disappear from the pop charts?

Before the rock era, instrumentals were heard all over the place as bandleaders were the stars of the show. The emergence of the singer as the focal point for a group decreased but did not eliminate them from the charts. Even when rock and roll came along, it was not unusual to turn on the radio and hear the latest hit from an instrumental band such as the Ventures. However, the seventies and eighties saw instrumentals relegated to theme songs from movies or television shows. Nowadays, even that avenue is gone as soundtracks regularly feature songs from the hottest artists of the moment.

And that is why hearing Radio Waves from the Aqua Velvets is such a pleasure, because it brings back a lost art. The band focuses on the surf music of Dick Dale and the aforementioned Ventures, but allows other influences such as lounge and psychedelia to creep in the mix.

Radio Waves serves as a sort "greatest hits" CD as it is a collection of live "in the studio" recordings from two radio stations from Northern California, Phil Dirt's longtime surf music show on KFJC, and listener supported KPFA. The first half of songs are from the former and the second half from the latter station making my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Radio Waves sound like two albums in one. Many of the songs are culled from the Aqua Velvets four studio CD's and the performance and the sound of the recording are quite good.

If the idea of listening to instrumentals scare you, keep in mind that the Aqua Velvets play "pop" music. The songs are not meant to be complex or "heady" as some jazz and classical pieces tend to be. Listening to the opening tracks "Swampabilly Hop" and "Bravado" will reveal the Aqua Velvets to be quite accessible and melodic.

However that said, the band, which consists of Miles Corbin and Hank Maninger on guitars, Michael Linden on bass, Donn Spindt on drums and Spencer Chan on keyboards, do show their impressive chops on a couple of extended jams. They really cook on the uptempo "Martini Time" and the slower, imaginative "Green Sunshine" without ever losing sight of the melody.

The bulk of the material are short pop songs and Corbin, who is the songwriter for the group, has developed some interesting themes to keep the CD lively. For example, there is the Latin-tinged "Spanish Blue", the spaghetti western feel of "Gringo", and they weren't kidding when they introduced "Beauty And The Beach" as lovely, as this ballad is my personal favorite from the CD.

The second half of the disc plays like a follow-up album, repeating many of the themes from the first half (right down to including a Ventures song. On the first half, they cover "Diamond Head", here they cover "Walk Don't Run"), and if like many follow-up albums, the material is not quite as memorable, it does have its share of highlights. For example, "Mexican Rooftop Afternoon" would have made an Oscar worthy movie theme, and the premise of "Holly Tiki" is what would a surf tune written by Buddy Holly sound like. They absolutely nail this one.

The Bonus CD has four tracks taken from a 2001 concert and is most notable for a cover of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit". Now I know that sounds like a potentially horrible idea, but the Aqua Velvets pull it off, which is not only a credit to them, but to the late Kurt Cobain who was more than just an alternative rock icon, but actually a pretty good songwriter.

Radio Waves is a nice primer to the world of surf music. At 25 songs, the CD does drag a bit, but there are many great tunes. And this is the key to this band. While they do have a retro feel, they have enough interesting ideas to keep the genre fresh. It also made me realize that it may be time to start listening to Dick Dale's music.

Rating: B+

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© 2002 George Agnos and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Milan Records, and is used for informational purposes only.