Saturday, October 31, 2015

A Look At The Under The Covers Box Set From Matthew Sweet And Susanna Hoffs

I met both of those people in that pic in the Spring of 1989. I was working at the University of Maryland Record Co-Op and I got free tickets and backstage passes to see The Bangles in D.C. right when "Eternal Flame" was riding high in the charts and the band were at their absolute peak. I don't think that the many teen girls in the audience quite appreciated openers House of Freaks but I did, having seen them a few times at the old 9:30 Club already, but I digress. Shortly after that I saw Matthew Sweet open for Toni Childs -- remember her? -- at Gaston Hall at Georgetown University. D.C.'s own Tommy Keene was backstage too, chatting with Matthew, and he's a guy I had also just met at the 9:30 Club in an incident that I recounted here earlier.

I'm getting nostalgic 'cause that was a great era for pop and if nothing else Completely Under The Covers by Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs, out now via Edsel for the CD, or Demon for the vinyl, reminds a listener of the gems from that era and the decade or two before it. Collecting all 3 albums, plus a bonus release, from the Under the Covers series, this set serves as a crash-course in Great American Songwriting in the modern era. Hoffs and Sweet have sort of cherry-picked their favorite tunes in order to highlight what makes a great single, sometimes regardless of genre; where else are you going to hear Little Feat ("Willin') rub up against The Buzzcocks ("You Say You Don't Love Me")?

The first thing I noticed about this reissue was that the albums sound fantastic. As Susanna Hoffs rocked through a positively chiming version of "And Your Bird Can Sing" all I could think of was how crisp everything sounded. Not only that, but the Beatles cover is one that I sort of dreamed of back in the old days when I not only wanted to hear The Bangles cover The Beatles, but I also secretly hoped that "Manic Monday" composer Prince would one day try his hand at "Green Tambourine" by The Lemon Pipers. Maybe if Prince one day does his own Under the Covers compilation?

If "Different Drum" by Linda Ronstadt in her Stone Poneys days sounds like a song that was written for Susanna Hoffs to sing, then "Warmth of the Sun" reveals itself as a surprisingly fitting choice for Sweet to try. While I think of Matthew Sweet being aligned with the sort of power-pop of another era that places him closer to Tommy Keene than Brian Wilson, he really makes this song his own here, highlighting new aspects of his skill-set and the durability of the Beach Boys back catalog.

A stab at The Left Banke's "She May Call You Up Tonight" succeeds even more than an earlier cover by The Sneetches did. One could be forgiven for not knowing the original -- or even the Sneetches version -- because this rendition is so good, so perfectly suited to Susanna Hoffs' voice and method of delivery. She owns this one, folks.

Volume 2 highlights the singer-songwriters of the era (the Seventies) without neglecting to let shine any of the pop-sense that both Sweet and Hoffs possess in spades. If I'm not a fan of Clapton I have to admit that the version of "Bell Bottom Blues" here made me want to re-assess that opinion, while even the over-played radio staple of "Maggie May" sounds fresh when sung by Susanna Hoffs. The best track on this volume of the set may be "Back of a Car" which manages to find something direct and affecting in what's a sorta hazy Big Star classic. As rendered here, I could almost say that I liked this cover even more than the esteemed original.

Disc 3 of Completely Under the Covers contains a lot of bonus tracks that are also Seventies gems but the choices here are more left-of-center, like Sweet's noble attempt at "Marquee Moon" by Television Seeing as how Television guitarist Richard Lloyd was on a few Sweet albums, it makes perfect sense. Hoffs shines on this volume on "Dreaming", turning the Blondie classic into something more melodic and less propulsive.

Even though there are tons of tunes I love from the Seventies -- songs I heard on AM radio as a kid in the car with my parents at the wheel -- I guess my tastes were firmly set in the Eighties and that's the decade covered by CD 4 of Completely Under the Covers. Here, Susanna Hoffs and Matthew Sweet deliver a fantastic set of covers of some of the standards from the era of New Wave.

Admirably picking a few songs that are the less obvious choices from some of the best bands of the era ("The Bulrushes" from Richard Barone's The Bongos, "Towers of London" from XTC), Susanna Hoffs and Matthew Sweet also try their hand at some better-known faves from the decade ("More Than This" by Roxy Music, "Free Fallin'" by Tom Petty). On perhaps the best CD out of this 4-CD Completely Under the Covers set, it's hard to pin down highlights but surely Hoffs' take on "Kid" by The Pretenders seems like the winner of the disc -- the sort of cover you can imagine just from reading about it -- and Sweet's rendition of "The Killing Moon" by Echo and the Bunnymen is pretty damn good, especially when one considers how far removed Sweet's music seems from that classic period of Bunnymen goodness.

Still, Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs show their pop smarts by choosing 2 tunes that are perhaps 2 of the best songs from the era, as far as I'm concerned: "Trouble" by Lindsey Buckingham and "You're My Favorite Waste of Time" by Marshall Crenshaw. And, as it might go without saying, both covers are fantastic.

Completely Under the Covers by Susanna Hoffs and Matthew Sweet is available now as a 6-LP or 4-CD set and you can see all the details, including the full track listing, here. I've attempted to draw attention to some of the best moments on these 4 discs but the reality is that there are far too many great moments here to possibly mention them all. Not only that, but the CDs sound better than they did on the first version of these releases. Fans of these 2 performers will be richly rewarded here and I can think of very few releases this year that will provide so much joy to a listener as these cuts on these albums. The world doesn't need a lot of covers but it surely needs these 'cause Sweet and Hoffs have somehow rendered most of these in such a way as to remind a listener of what great songwriting is.