Four years after The Verve Pipe’s “Villains” LP reached Platinum status, and its breakout single “The Freshman” became a legit mainstream radio hit, the East Lansing band returned to the studio to cut “Underneath,” its fourth proper full-length record — and their best record.
Don’t agree? Talk to the band’s vocalist/guitarist Brian Vander Ark who told this to the Chicago Tribune in 2015: “I think ‘Underneath’ was our best, and that was the one that really nobody heard.”
Of course, there is a lot of baggage as to why “nobody” heard it. But now, obscurity aside, and on the eve of its 20th anniversary, the album remains special in many ways. Firstly, it was produced by the songwriter/engineer Adam Schlesinger, a Grammy and Emmy Award winner — not to mention a founding member of wildly popular bands like Fountains of Wayne and Tinted Windows. Sadly, Schlesinger died unexpectedly on April 1, 2020 due to COVID-19 complications.
But his fingerprints were left on stacks of albums, for one: the bubbly title song to “That Thing You Do!,” which he wrote and co-produced for the 1996 Tom Hanks film. Beyond that, Schlesinger — a power-pop devotee— also made his mark on the legacy of The Verve Pipe, who ventured deep into the world of pop-infused rock ’n roll when they recorded “Underneath” with him.
On paper, the RCA Records-issued album seems like it should have been a new start for the local boys. It could have been a pathway to a radio-friendly career, but given its release date, Sept. 18, 2001 (aka the week after the 9/11 attacks), much of the world was still in shock, and not too concerned with buying new CDs.
The lead single, “Never Let You Down,” did score some airplay and some moderate Adult Top 40 chart action, but didn’t get near the traction of the previous two albums. However, the 11 original songs (two co-written by Schlesinger) are worth revisiting for those into shamelessly poppy hooks. From front to back, its stacked with lush harmonies (the title track, “Underneath”), crunchy ’90s guitars (“Happiness Is”), and even some delicate ballads (“Colorful”). Beyond that, “Gotta Move On” sounds like a lost Peter Gabriel track where he was backed by the Fab Four.
Or, as AllMusic Guide accurately stated back in 2001, the album “returned the group to the sound of their early, self-released albums, showcasing a guitar pop band born and raised on college rock bands like R.E.M., XTC, and Hüsker Dü.”
It’s hard to tell exactly why this dynamic disc quietly faded into the ether. Perhaps it was because The Verve Pipe left behind much of its gloomier side in favor of sparkly, polished tunes. Perhaps it was changing trends: Lifehouse, Incubus and Train were (chart-wise) crushing it at the time. There are no echoes of The Beatles or Big Star in that radio drivel realm. No benefit of Schlesinger’s golden ear at the mixing board, either.
Commercially, “Underneath” was not a huge triumph, however, it did garner critical praise. The Detroit Free Press called the album “the best stuff the group has concocted in half a decade.” Meanwhile, The South Bend Tribune wrote: “Vander Ark writes five of the songs on Underneath, and drummer Donny Brown writes four of them, and the differences between them help to make ‘Underneath’ a constantly shifting tilt of emotions and, probably, a much better album than if just one of them had been the main songwriter.”
In that 2015 Chicago Tribune feature, Vander Ark told reporter Allison Stewart that the undeserved flop of “Underneath” wasn’t taken easy on him or his bandmates. “All the stars were aligned, then 9/11 hit literally four or five days before our album was to be released, and it just killed us.”
And, in a way, it did — at least for a long stretch of time. Its next album, “Overboard,” wouldn’t hit stores until 2014. That’s a 13-year gap. Since their return, the members of The Verve Pipe have remained active, releasing both children’s music and adult music. Brown, the band’s drummer, left the band but releases solo records.
In May 2020, a month after Schlesinger’s untimely death, Brown returned to the studio with fellow Verve Pipe alumni Andy Reed and recorded “All Kinds of Time,” a song written by their friend Schlesinger. A fitting bookend tribute to the man behind the board on their best album.