Monday, August 24, 2009

That 70's Show

and a half

A few years back 90's one hit wonder Matthew Sweet (who I am a huge fan of) and 80's pop ingenue Susanna Hoffs (The Bangles) teamed up for an album of 60's songs called Under the Covers Vol.1. It became a modern favorite of mine, the duo's well established love for power pop coalesced into a fun, tuneful and entertaining display.
Now it's the present day and the dynamic duo is back, this time tackling the 70's with Under the Covers Vol. 2. Being a sequel it invites comparison to the first album, where the two showed exquisite taste in song selection (gotta pick the right song dawg!) mixing a few well known songs with a variety of lesser known ones. The mix held attention but gave them space to put their stamp on these songs, elevating above karaoke.
With Under the Covers Vol 2 the strategy has changed somewhat, there is a greater focus on better known songs and a more regimented approach of Sweet on production / background vocal duties while Hoffs more emotive (and commercial) voice out front. Also the 70's is historically known as the point Rock music fragmented into sub genres, to go with that there is a noted shift away from psychedelic power pop. Instead Sweet / Hoffs follow the polyester decade into power pop (natch), country rock, punk rock and prog.

The resulting album is a hit and a miss affair. When it hits, it recaptures the magic of the first disc. Highlights include a charged take on The Rasperries "Go All The Way" with it's amped up guitar riff and McCartneyish chorus. Hoffs and Sweet trade vocals and intertwine with a warm dreaminess fit for AM radio. A real surprise is Derek and the Dominoes "Bell Bottom Blues" with Hoffs on lead vocal. On paper this should suck ass, yet Hoffs plaintive vocal has bite while what sounds like multiple guitars dig into the vibe without taking the legend of Clapton head on. Another surprise on the deluxe edition is a dual lead vocal on Elvis Costello's "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace Love and Understanding" which actually works better for me with a male/female co-lead. It makes the song sound that much more universal. Country rock is a good fit for them as smearing steel guitars heighten the vocals on Gram Parson's "A Case Of You" or Little Feat's "Willin".

But even with these high points there are some serious clunkers, particularly when they venture into prog rock. Prog is about showing off an insane degree of instrumental virtuosity, so it seems like an empty cheat to drag in guitarist Steve Howe to reprise his parts on a cover of Yes' "All Good People". Tommy Shaw / Jack Blade's cover of "Your Move" last year was superior. Like wise a silly cover of Queen's "Killer Queen" sounds like fun in the studio that doesn't translate for a listening audience. Ditto xerox takes on "All The Young Dudes" or "Melissa", both are pleasant but hollow. And trying to imitate the attitude driven talk speak of Tom Petty on "Here Comes My Girl"? Even Petty's idol Bob Dylan couldn't pull that off. Plus a wretched cover of The Ramones "I Wanna Be Sedated" that drains the life out of a punk rock classic. In spots my wife's chief criticism seems accurate that their version of Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" applies to Sweet /Hoffs hubris in thinking they could play any musical style they feel like well (though I have to admit to liking their cover of this song, playing up the fragile hurt a bit more).

Thankfully, there are more winning moments than snoozers to keep this boat afloat. Even a note for note copy of the ten minute Television tune "Marquee Moon" might sound bad in theory, yet in practice I like it more than the original. The second half of the main disk lets the group jump into some lesser known songs to develop more personality. And hearing Hoffs push raspiness into her voice for Rod Stewart's "Maggie May" is good stuff and revives her knack for not changing genders in lyrics when handling male driven songs. Even a song from my musical arch enemy James Taylor ("You Can Close Your Eyes") becomes enjoyable when passed through the duo's hands. Last but not least Matthew Sweet + Todd Rundgren song = amazing ("Hello It's Me")

Under the Covers Vol 2. retains much of the fun spirit of it's predecessor even though Sweet and Hoffs periodically jump the shark. Despite its flaws, this is a thoroughly addictive listen for me. If you're in the mood to kick back with big headphones and RC Cola while hanging out in your basement playing Connect Four, Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs are playing your song. (I should note that some of the songs covered come from the deluxe edition which has a second CD)


Devon Reed said...

I think that Matthew's work on the Bigtop soundtrack deserves a listen, too.

Jeannie said...

"...there are some serious clunkers..."

If I can't say anything nice, then I won't say anything at all. :D