Posts Tagged ‘Matthew Sweet’

dodgecolt002Twenty-five years ago today as I write, on Wednesday Sept. 25, 1991, Diane and I were brand-new to married life, having gotten hitched the previous Friday in Philly’s Chestnut Hill neighborhood. It was, suffice it to say, a great day – up until we walked out of the French restaurant where we held the wedding: my brother and a friend had decked out my car, a Dodge Colt, in festive wedding gear, and tied empty cans to the back. That centuries-old tradition sounds charming, I suppose, but try driving with said cans clanging on Chestnut Hill’s cobblestone streets… as Bill the Cat might say, “Ack!” At the first opportunity, I cut ’em loose. Anyway, we waited until the following spring for our actual honeymoon, a wondrous California odyssey, and spent the weekend down the shore. We already lived together, so the adjustment was minimal – changing our W-4s was it, I think.

Here’s our living room from January 1991:


Yes, that’s a lot of CDs; and the number only increased, as they spawned often. By decade’s end, they took over that end of the living room.

smokey_ogc001Although I don’t remember the specifics of this particular Wednesday, I can still lay out a large chunk of what happened based on routine: I woke around 6:30, left at 7:35am, arrived at work 10-15 minutes later, and then sat at a desk for a spell. Those were the days of hour-long paid lunches (what a concept!), and I made use of the time by heading home most middays. Without morning traffic, it took 10 minutes each way. I brought in the mail, likely indulged the original old grey cat, Smokey, with a few treats, and worked on the Great American Novel, which I spent much of the ‘90s writing, re-writing and never completing.

That’s to say, in addition to a cat, we had a computer – a second-hand x286 IBM clone. It came with an eight-gig hard drive, 256MBs of memory and a modem, which meant we could, and did, connect to the sandboxed universe of Prodigy. My dad, God bless him, dumbed down the DOS operating system for us and installed a simple menu, so accessing a program was never more than one or two keystrokes away – as in, A, B, C, D or E. For me, at lunchtime, that meant firing up the word processor and tap-tap-tapping away.

The top movie of 1991 was The Silence of the Lambs, which Diane and I saw while down the shore for a week in the spring. (We read the book and Red Dragon, the novel that preceded it, in the same week. Yes, we were eyeing everyone with suspicion.) Other popular films included Beauty and the Beast, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Point Break and Hook, none of which interested me then or now; and Thelma & Louise.

On the economic front, America was teetering: unemployment averaged 6.8 percent for the year and inflation, at 4.2 percent, was a source of concern as January dawned, though it (thankfully) fell over the next 12 months. Still, there was reason to rejoice: the USSR officially disbanded on December 26th and, with it, the Cold War came to an end – at least, it came to an end for a time. We’ve recently seen the rich man’s Hugo Chavez, Vladimir Putin, upping Russia’s nationalistic ante as a way to distract everyday Russians from their own economic woes; and those dupes who’d play cards with him, such as Donald Trump, apparently have no clue that he’s dealing from a stacked deck.

Back on point: In the music-history books, 1991 is heralded for the breakthrough of the paradigm-shifting Nirvana, whose influential Nevermind was released 25 years ago yesterday. I’d love to say that I was among the first to buy it and take the music to heart. I wasn’t. I was in a different mind-space, as my list below shows. That’s not to say I didn’t and don’t appreciate the immediate impact and lingering influence of Nevermind; if I was creating an objective list for the year, I’d rank it No. 1. I’m not, however, so I won’t.

Before I get to the list: My main music-related memory from 1991 isn’t of an album, but of two sterling shows that we saw in the span of a few weeks, both at the TLA in Philly: Rosanne Cash on her Interiors tour; and the Irish singer Mary Black on her Babes in the Woods tour. Rosie’s was, as Dan DeLuca phrases it in his review, “an ‘I can’t remember the last time I saw anything this good’ show’; and Mary Black’s was as magical. (I reference it in this Of Concerts Past post about her 1994 show at the Chestnut Cabaret.) Other shows we saw in 1991: Elvis Costello with the Replacements; Emmylou Harris with Chet Atkins; Kathy Mattea with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band; Roger McGuinn; Bonnie Raitt with Chris Isaak; and K.T. Oslin with ex-Byrd Chris Hillman’s group, the Desert Rose Band. There were plenty of others.

For today’s Top 5: 1991.

1) Mary Black – Babes in the Wood. Selected track: “Still Believing.” I mentioned that memorable show of hers above because, looking back, I’m sure that live experience played a major part in my picking this as my favorite of the year. To this day, whenever I play the CD – or, now, stream it – I’m transported to the TLA, seated about halfway back, with Diane by my side.

2) Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Weld. Selected track: “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).” Now, this is my idea of grunge. Neil Young returned from the wilderness in 1989 with the stellar Freedom; followed it the next year with the raucous, Crazy Horse-infused Ragged Glory; and put a cap on his comeback with the electric tour captured on Weld, which could well be summed up in two words: brutal grace.

3) Matthew Sweet – Girlfriend. Selected track: “Divine Intervention.” One of my most-played albums of ’91, which is saying something as it was released in October of that year. This track, like the album as a whole, is delightfully trippy – and very Beatlesque.

4) John Mellencamp – Whenever We Wanted. Selected track: “Whenever We Wanted.” This, Mellencamp’s first release of the ‘90s, bypasses much of his late ‘80s Americana stylings in favor of the crunchy rock of Uh-Huh; and often substitutes sloganeering for the incisive short stories that accent Scarecrow, Lonesome Jubilee and Big Daddy. That said, a handful of songs – including this cut – stand with his greatest work.

5) Soundtrack – Falling From Grace. Selected track: Nanci Griffith’s “Cradle of the Interstate.” So John Mellencamp made a movie. I have no idea if it was good, bad or mediocre, as I’ve never seen it., but I can say without equivocation that the soundtrack – which preceded the film by a few months – was uniformly excellent, featuring tunes from Mellencamp, Dwight Yoakam, Larry Crane, Lisa Germano and Nanci Griffith.

And a few bonuses:

6) Nanci Griffith – Late Night Grande Hotel. Selected track: “It’s Just Another Morning Here.” A solid, if slightly overproduced, outing from the folkabilly singer-songwriter, who was one of our favorites. The songs played better live, as recall. I do wonder what’s become of her…

7) Lisa Germano – On the Way Down From Moon Palace. Selected track: “Riding My Bike.” Germano, of course, came to the fore as the fiddler in Mellencamp’s band – and is a phenomenal fiddler. This jazzy solo effort is likely not to everyone’s taste, but I enjoy it.

8) Blake Babies – Rosy Jack World. Selected track: “Temptation Eyes,” Juliana. John. Freda. What else need be be said?

I picked up new specs this summer – tinted, like my last ones and the ones before those, and the ones before those, going back decades. Insurance covered 70 percent of the overall cost, but the insurance also has rules about when coverage kicks in. An annual checkup? Yes. Lenses every year? Yes. Frames? No. Those are an every-other-year thing. Which is fine; for the minimal money I lay out every month for the insurance, I have no complaints.

It does make getting a second pair of specs, for backup purposes, a pricey affair, however. I’d keep my old ones, but my vision has changed so much, and the lenses were so scratched, that it’s not a good idea – especially now that I can see everything that I couldn’t before.

But paying the non-insurance rate for another set? Nah. Instead, I opted for, and wound up paying just $18 more than my out-of-pocket cost for the first pair, and that was because I chose transition lenses – sunglasses outside, crystal-clear inside. Ten days later, they arrived. They fit, I can see without issue, and like them. The lack of tint annoys me, however;  I wore them to my over-bright office one day last week and found myself near-blinded. My eyes have become accustomed to a gradient-shaded reality – a metaphor of some kind, no doubt.

So, anyway, for today’s Top 5: Vision.

  1. The Chi-Lites – “Have You Seen Her?”

2) Juliana Hatfield – “I See You”

3) Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs – “I See the Rain”

4) The MonaLisa Sisters – “I Saw Her Standing There”

5) Paul McCartney & Wings – “I’ve Just Seen a Face”

And a few bonuses…

Pete Townshend – “Eyesight to the Blind”

Roberta Flack -“First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”

Suzanne Vega – “Night Vision”


Sid, of course, is Matthew Sweet; and Susie is Susanna Hoffs. They began working together in the 1990s as 2/5s of the band Ming Tea, whose music was featured in the Austin Powers films – no doubt because one of the other members was Austin Powers himself, Michael Myers. The two apparently enjoyed the experience (and each other) so much that they kept on keeping on, eventually releasing the delightful, 1960s-themed Under the Covers, Volume 1 album in 2006 and Volume 2, which mined the music of the 1970s, three years later.

I wrote about both in my review of Volume 3, which navigates the 1980s, a few years back, but the short and sweet of that is this: I loved the first and liked the second. The former was a perfectly cut jewel; the latter was equally polished, yet not without its flaws.

Not flawed enough to stop us from getting tickets to see them in concert, mind you. That said, for whatever reason, we learned of the World Cafe Live show days (weeks?) after it went on sale and wound up stuck in what were, for us, not-so-good seats: at a table a fair distance away from the stage, adjacent to the soundboard.

Susanna, if I remember correctly, had flown into Philly that afternoon, having played with the Bangles the night before in Florida. They hadn’t rehearsed, and for much of the night she referenced lyric sheets – and still messed up the words from time to time, as this video of the night’s second song shows –

But come this night, at the World Cafe Live in Philadelphia, bad seats and no rehearsals didn’t much matter. Matthew was funny; and Susanna was charming. Their love for the music shone like diamonds, and the show was an absolute delight – even with the vocal intrusions of a rather intoxicated gent who kept yelling for Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me” even after they performed it.

Anyway, as the above clip shows, it was just Sweet, Hoffs and guitarist Paul Chastain (of the power-pop band Velvet Crush) on stage.

Here are some more clips:

And what may have been my favorite moment of the night:

Other highlights included delectable renditions of “You’re So Vain” and “Different Drum.” I remember, though, when the show ended, being a bit bummed that they hadn’t attempted my favorite song from Volume 2, the download-only bonus cover of Blondie’s “Dreaming,” or the drop-dead gorgeous version of the Bee Gees’ “Run to Me” from Volume 1:

In any event, the set list (borrowed from a favorable City Paper review) was thus:

I’ve Seen All Good People/Your Move (Yes); Willin’ (Little Feat); Second Hand News (Fleetwood Mac); You’re So Vain (Carly Simon); (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding (Elvis Costello); Cinnamon Girl (Neil Young); Different Drum (Stone Poneys); Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (Neil Young); She May Call You Up (The Left Banke); Hello It’s Me (Todd Rundgren); Couldn’t I Just Tell You (Todd Rundgren); All the Young Dudes (Mott The Hoople); And Your Bird Can Sing (The Beatles); Baby Blue (Badfinger); It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (Bob Dylan); Maggie May (Rod Stewart); Back of a Car (Big Star); In the Long Run** (The Carrie Nations); To Sir With Love** (Lulu); In Your Room-Manic Monday** (The Bangles); I’ve Been Waiting** (Matthew Sweet)

(** = Encore)


It’s been said that if you remember the 1960s, you weren’t there. They were the years of crazy duds, free love and mind-altering substances, after all, plus much, much more, encompassing everything from JFK’s election and assassination to the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War and “Abraham, Martin & John,” to say nothing of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, the Summer of LoveMonterey PopWoodstock and Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for man.” Maybe they weren’t quite the dawning of a new age, but they were monumental times, an important era. There’s no arguing that.

The ‘70s, too, had their fair share of moments, music and fads. Women’s lib, Title IX, est, inflation, wage-and-price controls (instituted by a Republican president, no less), gas shortagesWatergatedisco and Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech pushed and pulled the populace like Play-Doh. In many ways, the decade can be summed up by three r’s: refinement, as the excesses of the 1960s were reined in; (mood) rings, as silly fads proliferated; and rock, which shattered into fragments, from singer-songwriter to progressive to heavy metal to adult contemporary. At the same time, disco drove its danceable beat through the brain like a dull machete and punk rock turned electric guitars into glass shards aimed at the heart.

Or not. Those are, admittedly, imperfect summaries of both decades; condensing 20 years into two paragraphs is impossible. The overall takeaway, however, is this: there were good times, bad times and a lot of in-betweens. I’ve borrowed this line before, as it’s one of the all-time best, but as Paul Simon sang in “The Boy in the Bubble,” “every generation throws a hero up the pop charts.”  Every generation also has its fair share of ups and downs, hit movies, popular books, silly love songs, fashions and hairstyles.

The 1980s were no different. The decade is often derided as an era of shoulder pads, skinny ties and big hair – even by those of us who experienced them firsthand. But, really, it was simply a transitional time. As the final waves of the baby-boom generation receded into adulthood and adult responsibilities, the first ripples of Generation X appeared. MTVMiami Vice, Michael Jackson and Madonna held sway, as did new wavecollege rock and, by decade’s end, the relatively new genre of hip hop. AM was an anachronism by then and FM’s free-form days were, for the most part, a distant memory. Sure, there was lame music around (name me an era when there wasn’t), but good and great songs and albums also abounded. Often, they just weren’t easily found.

Which is a roundabout, rather wordy lead-in to my Album of the Year for 2013 (drumroll, please): Under the Covers Vol. 3 by Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs. It conjures the spirit of the ‘80s to a T – for good reason. It is the ‘80s.

If you’re unaware, the album series – which began in 2006 – tackles a different decade each time out. Volume 1 featured songs from the 1960s, Volume 2 songs from the ‘70s and this one songs from the Age of Reagan. The covers aren’t re-imaginings of the originals, but faithful renditions – sonic celebrations of the source material, if you will. In lesser hands and voices, the end result could well teeter into karaoke territory, but Sweet’s and Hoffs’ obvious love and respect for the songs lifts the sets into another realm – and none of the realms are quite as high as the one achieved on Volume 3.

Perhaps it’s that they’re covering songs from their contemporaries – Hoffs, of course, was and still is in the Bangles, one of the top bands of the ‘80s; and though he didn’t break through until 1991 with Girlfriend and “Winona,” for a time Sweet was part of the same Athens, Ga., music scene as R.E.M. Or maybe it’s the song selection. Volume 1 was tight, a true delight, but some of the picks seemed obvious; and the deluxe/bonus track-laden version of Volume 2 suffered from the audio equivalent of suburban sprawl – it went on and on and on. Don’t get me wrong, each features moments of splendor, but neither is a five-star affair (though Volume 1 comes close). Volume 3, however, hits the mark from the get-go with “Sitting Still,” the b-side to R.E.M.’s first single (“Radio Free Europe”), and doesn’t let up, dishing out college-rock classics side-by-side with MTV staples – and a few cool detours into classic rock.

I’ll eschew a track-by-track analysis, but will point out Hoffs’ sassy take on Elvis Costello’s “Girls Talk” (which was a hit for Dave Edmunds as well as a highlight of Linda Ronstadt’s 1980 Mad Love album); the Kirsty MacColl-penned Tracey Ullman hit “They Don’t Know,” which contains what may well be Hoffs’ best-ever vocal; and her sultry reading of Roxy Music’s “More Than This,” which does Bryan Ferry proud. Sweet, too, has moments both sublime and stupendous – Tom Petty’s ”Free Fallin’,” the English Beat’s “ Save It For Later” and the Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now,” for example. And just as Volume 2 hid a few gems in its deluxe/bonus track version, the same’s true here – Sweet shines on Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U” and the Clash’s “Train in Vain.”

For me, though, nothing beats their take on the Go-Go’s: “Our Lips Are Sealed” is as flat-out fun here as when Belinda Carlisle & Co. performed it at the Keswick over the summer – my favorite concert of the year, I should add. (It makes me wish the Bangles and Go-Go’s would tour together as the Bang-Go’s.) It’s an instant-smile song. In fact, the same’s true for Volume 3 as a whole. No matter your mood, you’ll be feeling happy (or happier) by the time it’s done.

Which is likely why it beat out many other excellent sets for my Album of the Year. Diane Birch’s Speak a Little Louder would be my first runner-up, followed by Minor Alps’ self-titled set, Juliana Hatfield’s Wild Animals, Natalie Maines’ Mother, Patty Griffin’s American Kid and others that I’ll likely be kicking myself for forgetting to mention. They each have something to offer, but none come close to capturing the sheer magic of Sweet’s and Hoffs’ voices blending together as one – harmonies from heaven, they are.