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Velahsa is a three-piece punk band from Minneapolis that makes occasional trips up north to, properly, the basement venue of R.T. Quinlan’s. Roughly six years old, Velahsa is composed of lead singer/songwriter Bryan Miller on guitar, Tony Marx on bass and Jack Smrekar on drums. The band’s name is not an actual word but a shortened version of “velociraptor,” which is a little confusing. It took me a while to figure out where the “h” was placed and that it wasn’t “Velasha,” another non-word. (A Russian version of “Felicia?” A character in World of Warcraft?) Too bad Tom Hanks didn’t show up that in their early days to advise them to go with “Velociraptor,” in the same way in “That Thing You Do” he told The One-ders to go with The Wonders so people don’t pronounce it O’Needers.
There is another band called Velociraptor, but they’re in Australia. (Thank you, Google.) Maybe the local boys could have come up with a variation like Death By Velociraptor or Velociraptor-182. But they’ve been around long enough and just released their third album, so we’ll have to get used to “Velahsa.”
Actually, Velahsa is not quite punk so much as hard-driving yet melodic rock along the lines of Foo Fighters and The Replacements. The opening track, “Screaming Out,” introduces us to the basic Velahsa sound, a rapid-fire but tricky barrage of riffs. In the lyrics to the second track, “See Through You,” they define punk rock as “a way to think, it’s not a sound.” The album title is lifted from a line in a Wilco song, “Pot Kettle Black.” Velahsa is not remotely alt-country like Wilco, but it wouldn’t be a stretch for them to play that song. (Without the synthesizer, though.)
The album’s not as raw as their first, “Cookie Monster Ending” from 2013, and has more variety than their second, “A Series of Small Choices” from 2015. As recorded by veteran Twin Cities sound engineer Chris Harrington, “Every Song” shows more polish and complexity than their earlier works, but it hasn’t compromised the rawness. This time around they add a cello, possibly inventing a new genre: chamber punk?
Miller has a penchant in his lyrics for addressing someone with the second person “you,” sometimes expressing love, but more often anger. It’s all part of the in-your-face punk ethic. In “Bad Bad Person,” a laundry list of complaints against someone (ex-girlfriend? Unwelcome intruder in their circle of friends?) it gets so savage (“I wish you would fall down a great big f--king hole”) you wonder who’s the bad bad person, the one being addressed or the one hurling the insults. This despite the fact that the tune is sweet, folksy and drumless, more suited for a love ballad. “Truth,” the closing track, is a non-rocker in which the only instruments are the cello and an echoey upright piano, but it still manages to get in the line, “F--k you, I don’t want to be like you.”
I’m not sure where the hostility is coming from. In an upcoming PBS short documentary on the band (the Reader got to see a rough cut) Miller comes off as your basic easygoing bro-dude. “Just because you’re a rock guy playing in local bars it doesn’t make you cooler than anyone else,” he says. “There’s always somebody that’s better at every instrument, there’s always someone better at singing, whatever. So I’ve never looked at it as, ‘Oh are they good as us? Or are we as good as them?’ Never, ever, because that’s just a lot of pressure, why would you want to put that on yourself? I don’t care, it doesn’t matter, they’re not you. Who cares? Just be yourself.”
Maybe he’s been mellowed out a bit by having a baby daughter, the subject of several songs. “Harper Line One,” starts out quiet with a single plucking note, then adds another layer with the cello, and then explodes in bursts of rock with the full band. Here he sings about how he’s glad he didn’t commit suicide because otherwise the baby wouldn’t have come into the world. Whoa! In “Hey Princess” he begs, “Please don’t you grow up too fast.” Let’s hope not. But I look forward to future Velahsa albums about growing up all over again. And more frequent visits to Duluth.
Velahsa plays Saturday, April 6, 9:30 p.m. at R.T. Quinlan’s in Duluth, along with Dog Talk and Theft by Swindle.