Nebraska native Matthew Sweet played in Oh-OK and Buzz of Delight before launching a career as the great pop hope, a guitarist, singer and songwriter with one foot in the indie-pop demi-ground and the other in the commercially viable land of melodic rock auteurs. Sweet’s solo debut, Inside, was something of a nexus for likeminded creators: it was produced in NYC, Boston, London and LA by Stephen Hague, Scott Litt, Don Dixon, David Kahne and Dave Allen, among others. Sweet co-wrote three of the songs with Pal Shazar (ex-Slow Children) plus one each with Jules Shear and Adele Bertei; performers include Aimee Mann (‘Til Tuesday), John McGeoch (Magazine, Banshees), two Bangles, Jody Harris, Mike Campbell (Petty’s Heartbreakers), Valerie Simpson (Ashford and…), Bernie Worrell, Chris Stamey, Fred Maher and Anton Fier — again, among others. (The following year, Sweet took part in a Golden Palominos mini-tour.) For all the impressive assistance, Sweet plays nearly everything himself on two tracks, and manages to maintain a consistent feel throughout Inside, which is a bit like R.E.M. and early dB’s doing sincere power-pop with keyboards. While most of Side Two is simply good, four of the five tracks on Side One are excellent.
Recording Earth in Los Angeles, Sweet diluted his England-via-Georgia sound with a dose of SoCal laid-backism. (Ironically, most of the participants are from the East Coast, mainly New York.) Dave Allen and Fred Maher co-produced with Sweet; Kate Pierson of the B-52’s and Trip Shakespeare chip in backing vocals, while mucho guitar is supplied by Richard Lloyd, Robert Quine and Gary Lucas (ex-Beefheart). The album overdoses on pleasantness at moderate tempos — please, get obtrusive already! (A snappy rocker on Side Two is merely an aberration.) Not bad, but a disappointment after the promise of Inside.
In retrospect, Girlfriend, the album which elevated Sweet to a measure of well-earned success, appears to be a once-in-a-lifetime combination of time, musician and production. Drummer/co-producer Fred Maher, who had previously worked with Lou Reed, Lloyd Cole, Scritti Politti and the Golden Palominos, gives the album a spacious, detailed, crystalline sound. Sweet’s vocals (including his multi-tracked Byrdsy harmonies) are front and center, drummer Ric Menck (of Velvet Crush, whose first album Sweet produced) and Sweet’s bass move the songs along with brisk rhythmic efficiency. The guitars — Sweet on rhythm, with Quine and Lloyd sharing lead duties — give his retro tendencies a modern edge. Quine’s guitar easily pierces the muscle of the catchy, propulsive title track and the folky acoustic strums of “I Wanted to Tell You”; Greg Leisz’s pedal steel puts a country point on “Winona,” “You Don’t Love Me” and the lush “Your Sweet Voice.” Written during Sweet’s divorce, the songs have a pungent, plaintive edge, from the invocation of “Divine Intervention” to the almost gleefully misogynistic “Does She Talk?” From the cover photo of a young Tuesday Weld to the sound of a needle skipping on scratchy vinyl between tracks, Girlfriend is close to being a paradigm for 1990s power pop.
Which makes the next two albums to follow it both disappointing and puzzling. On paper, Richard Dashut might have seemed like a smart choice, but Altered Beast is a mess. The bright, clean sound of the producer’s work with Fleetwood Mac should have fit with Sweet’s pop sensibility, but their collaboration yields a record that is far too busy and, in spots, viscous and sludgy. Getting contributions from Mick Fleetwood, Nicky Hopkins and Pete Thomas, as well as most of the Girlfriend cast, the project feels rushed, with too many competing guitars (played variously by Sweet, Quine, Lloyd, Leisz and Ivan Julian) and vocal performances that too often sound offhand. But what’s truly surprising is the songwriting, which suffuses the entire album with snotty nastiness; Altered Beast has all the antipathy of the Rolling Stones’ Aftermath and none of the swagger. The credible hooks of “Devil With the Green Eyes” and “Time Capsule” barely counterbalance the bitterness at the songs’ heart. “The Ugly Truth” appears twice, first as a smudged, overloaded pop production and later as “Ugly Truth Rock,” which the band (here Sweet, Lloyd and drummer Ron Pangborn) crashes through with unfettered joy. It’s easily the best thing on the album, and an indication of what Sweet might have done if pushed in the right direction. Son of Altered Beast is a seven-track companion piece containing a B-side (“Ultrasuede”), a remix (“Devil With the Green Eyes”), live versions of Altered Beast‘s “Someone to Pull the Trigger” and “Knowing People” and three other concert numbers, including a version of Neil Young’s “Don’t Cry No Tears.”
Sweet’s songwriting is back to form on 100% Fun, but Brendan O’Brien is yet another dubious choice of producer. His fat, distortion-laden muffle sacrifices detail for power — cool if you’re Stone Temple Pilots or Pearl Jam, but deadly for a writer like Sweet. Adding to the problems, new drummer Stuart Johnson (on loan from Love Jones) has a loose, behind-the-beat approach that allows some of the best songs here to turn flaccid. (Fortunately, the memorable melodic charms of “Giving It Back” and “Come to Love” can’t be stopped.) Menck drums on five cuts, some of which (“Sick of Myself,” “We’re the Same”) are album highlights.
Sweet’s 2006 collaboration with Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles picks up where the Rainy Day LA scene covers collection (on which she appears) left off in 1984. The duo does a knowing set of groovy ’60s tunes, most of them generally familiar, with some Nuggets esoterica thrown in. In principle, modern pop royalty (aided by Ric Menck, Van Dyke Parks, Richard Lloyd and others) paying homage to such sterling compositions as “Monday, Monday,” “The Kids Are Alright” and “Different Drum” should be wonderful, but there are problems. For one thing, some of these songs have been done to death. More important, their voices don’t blend all that harmoniously, and not all the arrangements do the tunes justice. “She May Call You Up Tonight” is simply no match for the Left Banke original, and Sweet’s clunky singing on “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” sounds worse for Hoffs cooing over it. Given a generic country-rock treatment, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” does not suit her style. On the plus side, Lloyd fires up Marmalade’s “I See the Rain” for psychedelic fun, “And Your Bird Can Sing” is a surprise treat, and “The Warmth of the Sun” is lushly respectful. More a disappointment than a dud.