Matthew Sweet

TrackAlbum
Divine InterventionGirlfriend
I've Been WaitingGirlfriend
Time CapsuleAltered Beast
Ugly Truth RockAltered Beast
Sick Of Myself100% Fun
We're The Same100% Fun
Back To YouBlue Sky On Mars
Millennium BluesIn Reverse
The Ocean In-BetweenKimi Ga Suki
I Belong To YouTomorrow's Daughter

Matthew Sweet photo 1

(photo: Bob Berg)

 

 

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Matthew Sweet playlist

 

 

Contributor: Marc Fagel

Looking back over his 30+ years (and counting) of shimmering (and at times truly transcendent) power pop, I’m struck by how much Sweet’s musical trajectory, or at least my engagement with it, parallels that of another artist I wrote about recently in this space, the Flaming Lips. After a somewhat undistinguished start in the 80s, Sweet really found his voice in the 90s, littering the decade with ridiculously great music and establishing himself as perhaps the dominant force in post-Big Star/Badfinger power pop. Since the millennium, though, while he has continued to release perfectly enjoyable records, I personally find them less memorable than his earlier work, and after a few spins can’t help but return to his classic 90s run. (And, in another Flaming Lips parallel, some of his finest latter-day moments have been cover songs.)

Sweet started his career by moving from his Nebraska home to the burgeoning Athens, Georgia music scene. He connected with R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, doing some recording together while briefly joining the quirky jangle-pop band fronted by Stipe’s sister Linda, Oh-Ok. He formed his own band with Oh-Ok’s drummer called the Buzz of Delight, recording an EP or so of decent enough college radio indie pop.

Sweet then struck out on his own. Alas, his 1986 solo debut, Inside, was dragged down by the tell-tale sins of 80s production, with cheesy synths and gated drums. A few tunes, like the opening tracks, Quiet Her and Blue Fools, demonstrate Sweet’s knack for melodic, guitar-driven power pop, rising above the album’s dated aesthetics, but otherwise it comes across as something of a weak New Wave-era holdover. Things improved marginally on the 1989 follow-up, Earth. Sweet smartly brought in some musical ringers, like Television’s Richard Lloyd, sometime Lou Reed sideman Robert Quine, and Chris Stamey of the dB’s. Reed’s occasional drummer Fred Maher gave the record a more muscular production as well. Nonetheless, it still sounds at times like an 80s relic, retaining those confounding synths, and, frankly, the material just wasn’t great, too twee by half. Again, though, there were glimmers of hope, like the catchy When I Feel Again.

Fans who took a pass on Sweet’s early years would nonetheless be well-served by To Understand, a compilation that gathers most of the Buzz of Delight recordings, the Inside/Earth highlights, and a few additional tracks. The remastering may not hide the production flaws of the originals, but by culling out some of the weaker songs, the collection makes a case that his humble beginnings were underrated, or at the very least provide a helpful context for his later work.

Given the underwhelming response to the first two records, 1991’s Girlfriend feels like it came out of nowhere, the work of an entirely new artist. It holds up today as not just one of the finest power pop records of all time, but simply one of the best albums of the 90s, period. This time around, the array of visiting guitarists (a returning Lloyd and Quine, as well as Lloyd Cole and others) are given more breathing room, abetted by greatly-improved production, making it a real guitar lovers’ album. But the album’s real strength derives from Sweet’s songwriting, a batch of fresh tunes that make a huge artistic leap forward.

 

Album opener Divine Intervention provides a withering guitar duel that recalls Richard Lloyd’s Television days, while I’ve Been Waiting may be the best example of deliriously tuneful, jangly guitar power pop since Big Star’s first two albums. Other standouts include the hard-rocking power-pop title track (and the similarly insinuating I Wanted To Tell You), the slithering riffage of Evangeline, the sludgy stomp Does She Talk (recalling Wire’s Strange), and one of Sweet’s more memorable ballads, Winona.

Confirming Girlfriend was no fluke, 1993’s Altered Beast is nearly as great. Girlfriend’s key assets – guest musicians like Richard Lloyd, Robert Quine, and others; varied styles from power pop to balladry to raging rockers – are reprised, coupled with a more ambitious palette, Sweet often reaching beyond standard power pop conventions into almost prog-like complexity. (If anything, the hour-long album is too much of a good thing, and might have benefitted from a bit more editing.) Time Capsule is one of Sweet’s strongest tunes, a mid-tempo, jangly ballad with haunting hooks. The Ugly Truth is infectious pop candy, appearing in both a gently chiming version and reprised later as the even better, harder rocking Ugly Truth Rock. The ballads Devil With The Green Eyes and Someone To Pull The Trigger further cement Sweet’s growing knack for understated yet delightfully engaging melodies.

For 1995’s 100% Fun, Sweet pared back the ambitious scope of the two prior records, a more concise collection of upbeat pop tunes and quieter ballads that makes for a particularly approachable album; if less a tour de force than Girlfriend, it’s arguably the more consistent record. Lead-off track Sick Of Myself is a stripped-down three-chord rocker that wields perhaps his most effective earworm chorus to date, basically daring the listener not to sing along; and he almost one-ups himself with the harmony-laden chorus of We’re The Same. Come To Love and Get Older are similarly tuneful power pop winners, while stunning closer Smog Moon proves it’s possible to write a lighter-hoisting power ballad that doesn’t suck.

Though not exactly a departure from the prior albums, 1997’s Blue Sky On Mars sees Sweet mixing things up a bit sonically, introducing some retro-sounding synths to the mix (but fortunately avoiding the pitfalls of his pre-Girlfriend records). Sure, by now the assortment of crunchy, hooky power pop and wispy ballads feels a little formulaic, but a solid fistful of memorable tunes keeps the album interesting. Back To You is yet another in a string of ridiculously catch tunes, while the bouncy Come To California and Where You Get Love (the latter recalling the playful synths of Cheap Trick’s Dream Police), as well as the super-pithy Over It, continue Sweet’s track record of worthy ear candy.

1999’s In Reverse closes out a remarkable decade with a few more great songs but, alas, sees Sweet’s formula starting to feel a little tired. It starts out strongly enough, the dense, baroque Millennium Blues sporting a richer, more psychedelic and Beatlesque sound than he has typically employed. Unfortunately, the rest of the album returns to more familiar territory, and with the exception of a few tunes, like the rocking Faith In You, doesn’t do enough to distinguish itself from prior work.

 

Perhaps wisely, Sweet took a few years off, at least from solo albums. During the break, he formed a briefly-lived supergroup of sorts with singer-songwriters Pete Droge and Shawn Mullins called the Thorns. Their self-titled 2003 release is essentially an indie rock version of Crosby, Stills and Nash, mostly middle-of-the-road singer-songwriter pop with a distinct seventies vibe, distinguished by gorgeous harmonies and a few nifty tracks (with the Sweet-helmed I Can’t Remember as beautiful as anything in his solo catalog). It’s an underrated gem which, notwithstanding the common complaint that the record tries to hard to recreate Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’, sounds wonderfully, well, sweet. (Sorry, I had to do that at least once.)

When he returned as a solo artist that same year, he did so with an album, Kimi Ga Suki, released solely in Japan (though released worldwide the following year). As noted earlier, I’ve been less engaged with Sweet’s post-90s output. I’ve dutifully picked up every album, invariably finding a few songs per record worthy of inclusion on a home-brewed greatest hits collection, but the balance often reflect the limitations of the power pop genre – everything is perfectly listenable and enjoyable, as Sweet always knows his way around a catchy tune, but the songs have a tendency to blend together.

The Kimi album itself, despite the four-year break, wasn’t much of a departure from In Reverse, distinguished largely by the wonderfully infectious tune The Ocean In-Between. 2004’s Living Things was arguably the better album to jump-start his career, with a brighter, airier sound and tunes that felt more engaging. Push The Feelings is particularly nice, a slice of buoyant sunshine pop with a cynical edge.

Other latter-day tunes worth further inspection are the aptly-titled Byrdgirl, off 2008’s relatively muscular Sunshine Lies, with its jangly Byrds-like chime (just missing the Toppermost cut); and the Beatlesque I Belong To You from 2018’s particularly solid Tomorrow’s Daughter. Oddly, in another seemingly self-defeating move along the lines of the Japan-only Kimi Ga Suki release, Sweet’s arguably most interesting album in years, 2018’s Wicked System Of Things, was a Record Store Day release that remains unavailable on CD or streaming media. It’s a riveting rocker, Sweet leaning heavily on the distortion pedal, and worth tracking down even if lacking the obvious Toppermost-worthy standout pop song.

 

Aside from continuing to release reliably enjoyable (if not exactly groundbreaking) albums of original material – his latest due to drop in the days ahead at the time of this writing – Sweet’s most noteworthy work in recent years has been his trio of cover albums with the Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs. (Sweet and Hoffs had previously teamed up in the fictitious band Ming Tea, performing music for the Austin Powers movies.) Sweet has long been a tasteful rock curator, contributing faithful but compelling covers to various soundtracks, tribute albums, and B-sides; but he went all-in with 2006’s fantastic Under The Covers, a well-selected collection of 60s songs both obvious and arcane, he and Hoffs sharing vocal duties and replicating a who’s-who of essential artists (the Beatles, Who, Velvet Underground, Beach Boys, Love, Neil Young, Dylan, etc.). It’s tough to make a covers album sound relevant, but between Sweet’s genius for chiming power pop and Hoffs’s entrancing voice, they pull it off. They reprised this with a 2009 collection of 70s covers (including the Grateful Dead, Tom Petty, Big Star, Bowie, and, yes, even Yes) and 2013’s collection of 80s covers (including R.E.M., Elvis Costello, Roxy Music, and the Smiths). All three albums are great fun for fans of the originals, and can be picked up in a later box set.

While I’m loathe to recommend a greatest hits collection, being the sort of nerdy rock enthusiast who prefers to hear songs in the context of the original albums, Sweet’s discography lends itself particularly well to a well-selected overview; newbies would be more than satisfied with 2014’s Essential Matthew Sweet, a double-CD collection that cherry picks the obvious hits, as well as some deep tracks and a few B-sides. (More tentative listeners might opt for the pithier single-CD collection of 90s tracks, Time Capsule.)

 

 

Matthew Sweet photo 2

Susanna Hoffs & Matthew Sweet

 

Matthew Sweet official website

Matthew Sweet (Wikipedia)

NPR interviews and concerts

Matthew Sweet biography (AllMusic)

Marc Fagel is a recovering lawyer living outside San Francisco with his wife and his obscenely oversized music collection. He is the author of the recently-published rock lover’s memoir “Jittery White Guy Music”. His daily ruminations on random albums in his collection can be seen on his blog of the same name, or by following him on twitter. Marc’s previous posts include Badfinger, New Pornographers, Bettie Serveert, Flaming Lips, Neil Young, My Morning Jacket, Raveonettes, Phish, Luna, Jesus and Mary Chain, Feelies, Genesis, Wilco, King Crimson and Brian Eno.

TopperPost #926

4 Comments

  1. Chris Coleman
    Jan 7, 2021

    An excellent overview of his output – like you I continue to buy everything he releases but it’s that Girlfriend album which is THE ONE. Saw him play in London on the Girlfriend tour. Magnificent band backing him up and up there in my top 10 gigs ever.
    Also like to put in a good word for the great Ric Menck on drums.
    So, gonna dig out those later albums and give them a spin or two. Thanks for this piece.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Jan 7, 2021

    Wow – that clip with John Hiatt is just superb. Thanks for introducing me to some great music.

    • Marc Fagel
      Jan 8, 2021

      Andrew, glad to help! Happy listening!

  3. Calvin Rydbom
    Jan 13, 2021

    I was wondering if you were going to mention the Under the Covers Albums. I completely understand you not pulling a cover song for your list, but those albums really need to be mentioned in both Hoffs and Sweets discography. The 60s effort is amazing.

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