They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with other people singing his or her songs. Let others do the work for a while. Happy birthday!
Matthew Sweet turns 48 today. In a few weeks his signature album Girlfriend will be old enough to legally drink, but in a more important way, it will never grow old; Sweet’s masterpiece of love and loss is infinitely timeless, and we’re grateful for it permanently placing him in the power-pop pantheon.
Sweet knows his way around a cover song – he’s a consistent presence on tribute albums, and he and Susanna Hoffs have released two volumes of Under the Covers, their takes on ’60s and ’70s songs (volume 3, an all-’80s collection, is due to arrive in the not too distant future). However, his greater value comes in his singer-songwriter vocation, as he constructs glorious hook-filled songs that half-shield the listener from lyrics that can have a harsh sting to them. This bitter-Sweet combo holds a lot of appeal to other musicians; here’s what five of them have done with his songs.
Death Cab for Cutie – Sick of Myself (Matthew Sweet cover)
Sweet’s biggest hit doesn’t go to eleven in Death Cab for Cutie’s hands (unless there’s a decimal point involved), but even in hushed tones, “Sick of Myself” still resonates as something beautiful and true.
Jonnie Bock – Girlfriend (Matthew Sweet cover)
Mild-mannered Dr. Jonathan M. Bock is an otolaryngologist in Milwaukee. But when night falls, he’s Jonnie “Geetahr” Bock, ace guitarist, writer of songs that aren’t about girls who won’t date him, not to mention reworked covers like this bluesy acoustic “Girlfriend.” “An evening with JB on stage is like taking your best friend to the prom,” he says on his webpage, “an evening burgeoning with possibilities that leaves you frustrated and wanting for more.” Here’s hoping Jonnie’s life doesn’t pass him by like a warm summer’s day.
Saint Etienne – Are We Gonna Be Alright? (Matthew Sweet cover)
Here’s a song Sweet wrote for the Springfields, a Sarah Records band a.k.a. Velvet Crush, featuring drummer and regular Sweet collaborator Ric Menck. Saint Etienne got swoons when they played it in concert, but they felt their studio recording didn’t quite get the Raspberries sound they wanted, so they shelved it. Big mistake; this is one track that shouldn’t collect a single speck of dust.
Freedy Johnston – I’ve Been Waiting (Matthew Sweet cover)
Freedy Johnston never hit it as big as he deserved to, but he’s still out there, recording and putting on great shows for those devotees who know to stick by a great thing when they hear it. On his horn-laden cover of “I’ve Been Waiting,” you can almost hear the smile on his face from the sheer joy of playing a good song and doing it more than a little justice.
Janiva Magness – Thought I Knew You (Matthew Sweet cover)
Janiva Magness has got a right to sing the blues, and she’s earned major kudos for her ability to do so. Her last three albums were released on Alligator Records, the classic Chicago blues label; the most recent of those, Stronger For It, came out this spring. On that record, she took Sweet’s “Thought I Knew You,” originally a distressed acoustic & piano-based tune of loss, and dug some much deeper furrows into it.