2020 Album Draft- Round 8 Pick 9- Dave- A Sound Day selects- Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs- Under The Covers Volume 1
Time to add one to the list that may not ha2ve changed the world and wasn’t altogether original…but was outstanding. An album that just screams laid-back good cheer, an album that makes me feel good when I listen to it. Bring on “head-Bangle” Susanna Hoffs and “buddy of R.E.M’s” Matthew Sweet with Under the Covers, Vol. 1. An odd album in that both the artists are talented writers and players, but there’s not one new or original song on it. But that won’t be what you’re thinking when you give it a listen.
UTC V1 is a tribute to a sound and a bygone era…the 1960s and the smart, catchy pop music that was so intrinsic to them. Music they both loved. Happily, both Susanna and Matthew had similar tastes, although Hoffs was living it more than Sweet. As he pointed out when talking about the ’70s, “I was ten years old in 1974, so I remember it more on AOR radio, and Sue was in college then, so she had a different world view.”
The age difference also showed in their careers; Susanna was in the Bangles selling records by the score in the 1980s; Sweet was just starting his musical career in the shadows, mostly in Athens, Georgia. He was a big fan of R.E.M. (he names them and Big Star as the last two bands he “fanned out” on), met them in their early days at a show in a smallish venue in Omaha, made friends with Peter Buck (who suggested he get Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys) and after talking with Michael Stipe, got a postcard a few days later telling him “Come to Athens. Make music!” He did.
In the ’90s, he put out several popular power-pop albums that did well on college radio but had only lukewarm sales compared to his friends R.E.M. Or compared to Hoffs’ Bangles. Those two met because Susanna was a fan of Matthew’s, and living in L.A., had connections. She and her husband took Mike Myers to a Matthew Sweet concert. The actor was impressed and hired both on to sing in a fictitious band (Ming Tea) used in one scene of his Austin Powers movie. The two hit it off, finding a common love of Rickenbacker guitars and the pop records made by their users (and others.) In 2006, they decided it would be fun to get together and play a few of their favorite songs of the ’60s. Under the Covers was the result; originally it was just that, but their fans were so happy with the results and they liked working together, it soon became Volume 1, as they’d do similar album tributes to the ’70s, then ’80s. “There’s just so many cool things that we both liked!” Sweet told interviewers.
“ We give a lot of weight to what the original was like, and why we found it appealing…we’re trying to be true to it,” he added. I’d say they succeeded, as did allmusic . That review site point out they “always displayed an unapologetic love of ’60s pop in their own music (so this) feels logical and right.” They add the pair “display exceptionally good taste.” That they did in song selection and playing.
Although Hoffs is a fine guitarist in her own right, for the most part she sticks to adding her lovely vocals and lets Matthew take the lead with the six-string, with the likes of Rick Menck on drums and Van Dyke Parks on keyboards. Not a bad nod to the decade there as Van Dyke was a collaborator with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys at their creative acme. “They’ve bagged the best of the ’60s with uncanny insight,” he said, “I know – I was there.”
They did and they picked a remarkable but somewhat obscure list of songs from the decade. They picked some of the best, and best known artists of the decade – the Beatles for starters, and the Who, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Bee Gees (although purists will point out the Bee Gees track included “Run to Me” was actually an early-’70s release…but it fits) and the Mamas and the Papas, but supplemented them with some lesser-known acts like Love and the Left Banke. But if tackling things like “Hey Jude” or “Won’t Get Fooled Again” might have been a bit audacious, they tended to lesser- known hits by the biggies. Arguably the most famous songs they included might be “Cinnamon Girl” and “The Kids are Alright.” The songs they covered were (and the original artists) :
I See The Rain – The Marmelade
And Your Bird Can Sing – The Beatles
It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue – Bob Dylan
Who Knows Where the Time Goes? – Fairport Convention
Cinnamon Girl – Neil Young
Alone Again, Or – Love
Warmth of the Sun – Beach Boys
Different Drum – Linda Ronstadt & Stone Poneys
The Kids Are Alright – The Who
Sunday Morning – Velvet Underground
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere – Neil Young (again!)
Care of Cell 44 – Zombies
Monday, Monday – Mamas & the Papas
She May Call You Up – the Left Banke
Run To Me – Bee Gees
They do a remarkable job, and to me the surprising thing is they somehow remain true to the original all the while infusing them with a sound all their own. About half the songs I knew well already (“The Kids Are Alright”, “Cinnamon Girl”, “Monday, Monday” etc., as well as “Alone Again, Or” which I knew from an ’80s cover by the Damned of all people rather than the original) and about half I must admit, I didn’t know at the time, like “Care of Cell 44”, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “She May Call You Up.” But listening to it, it played through smoothly and pleasingly, start to finish. Not only are the two friends apparently, their voices work exceptionally well together. On more of the songs, Susanna sings lead in the voice we so loved in the Bangly-’80s, with Matthew adding some harmonies and backing vocals – “Different Drum”, where she channels Ronstadt very well, for example – while on a few tracks they switch over with Matthew singing lead and “Susie” doing the background . Their summery Beach Boys tribute “Warmth of the Sun” being an example there, while here and there, like “The Kids Are Alright”, they duo all the way through. The backing band is crisp and tight, whether playing the soft rock, easy-listening Bee Gees or Mamas & the Papas songs, the flamenco-guitar laden “Alone Again, Or” or even the jangle rock anthems akin to what Sweet used to make himself – “Cinnamon Girl” with its feedback, “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.”
So far as I know they didn’t release a single off the album and it would’ve been hard to pick one to “single” out. In a pinch, I’d perhaps think the joyouslove song “Care of Cell 44”, “Run to Me” (correctly picked as “a Barry Gibb masterpiece of economy and grandeur” by Hoffs) or “I See the Rain Again” might be the standouts, but there isn’t a bad track on the record. To make it better, the pair write descriptions of the songs and why they meant something to them in the liner notes. “I guess we felt more kick- assedness couldn’t be a bad thing,” they write by way of why they included “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” as a second Young song.
Their subsequent Under the Covers were good as well, but to me, this one was the cream of the crop. Perhaps because some of the songs were “new” to me it sounds fresher, given a lack of starting point for comparison; perhaps they just picked a batch of songs they were perfectly suited to performing. Either way, a loving look back at a bygone era that sounds at once authentic but very current as well. Joyous, jangly, cheery… it lacks the gravitas of some of my other picks and other albums my colleagues have chosen here, but to me, a “Sweet” little piece of comfort food for my ears I’m sure I’d most appreciate on some desert island.