Friday, May 08, 2009

Freakin' Sweet

The man, the myth, the legend...Matthew Sweet livens up the power pop pack in the Grunge era.

I'm a big 'ol fan of power pop maven Matthew Sweet ever since his breakthru CD Girlfriend (1991). Even though he can get a little repetitive, when he matches the right bright pop hook with the right chiming guitars and bittersweet sad sack lyrics it's aural awesomeness. With a long career spanning two decades in the can, I'm going to break his retrospective into two sections: the 90's and the 00's.

The first time I (and maybe a lot of his current fans) heard of him was with the release of the song and album Girlfriend. An album reportedly borne from his divorce, it had an emotional immediacy packed in craggy guitar licks and pristine harmonies. The title song was an alternative radio hit, a punchy slice of catchy garage rock that would make the next generation flail their plastic guitars in a Guitar Hero frenzy. The Byrdsy follow up single I've Been Waiting was another winner. For me, the mix of upbeat pop rock ("I Wanted To Tell You"), sad guy balladry ("You Don't Love Me") and pop culture fixations ("Winona", "Evangeline") was spellbinding. And did I mention the heavy use of anime in his videos? How could a geek refuse?

The attention Sweet got from Girlfriend gave him the juice to bring in Fleetwood Mac producer Richard Dashut for the follow up Altered Beast (1993). I think I read an interview once where Sweet said he was hiding on this album, it certainly feels that way. His voice seems low in the mix amid Dashut's smooth production. The hits were just OK with me, though I did like the video for Ugly Truth Rock with it's Vanishing Point influenced fast car driving. What stuck with me was an almost self loathing attitude on the best songs like "Someone To Pull The Trigger" or "Dinosaur Act". And Mac fan that I am, I played "Reaching Out" a lot because of the Mick Fleetwood guest appearance. "Devil With The Green Eyes" and "Fallen" were the two other songs that made my CD player regularly back then. Altered Beast kept my interest although I didn't like it nearly as much as Girlfriend.

Sweet rebounded by snagging hard rockin' producer Brendan O' Brien who quickly injected a more muscular sonic sheen. 100% Fun (1995) was exactly that, Sweet's songwriting had sharpened to give potency to the new uncluttered approach. The singles Sick of Myself and "We're The Same" even made alterna rock radio play just as the early 90's breakthru artists were starting to fade away. Always the video genius, there's a bit of 70's glamourpuss fantasy in the clip for We're The Same. The softer moments came across really well with one of my favorite Sweet songs, "Not When I Need It", with it's yearning melody and lush background vocals. The man looked unstoppable as this album was played regularly in my car.

Around 1996-1997 Sweet became affiliated with Mike Myers and Susannah Hoffs to form Ming Tea, a band that would play background and interlude music for the Austin Powers movies. The fun infectious nature of the 60's throwbacks like BBC added a bit of flavor to the franchise. This should have set up for another round of glorious power pop, yet Sweet decided to challenge himself with a stripped down approach to Blue Sky On Mars (1997). Mars had a self contained mood with Sweet playing a lot of instruments and spare arrangements. Although the Cars-sy single Where You Get Love and the rushing opening number Come To California played well, much of the album felt underdone for my taste. I can't say it was bad, just dull. So dull it put me off Sweet's music for about five years or so.

Which is why it was just a few months ago I picked up his 1999 release, In Reverse. It got good reviews but I still ignored it thinking he had lost his mojo. Hearing it now, In Reverse is actually pretty good. The lushest of his albums, In Reverse finds Sweet on a serious Brian Wilson binge with some Byrds and Eric Carmen mixed in. "If Time Permits" is like the Fleet Foxes a decade ahead while "Hide" recalls ELO. It also contains some of Sweet's most pleasantly self aware writing, making the clever "Untitled" or the critic kiss off "Write Your Own Song" late inning finds.

It was the end of Century, Sweet would take a break at the first part of the new millennium before returning to his prolific self again. Fortunately I wasn't listening to his music at this point anyway until he would become a Thorn in my side.

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