In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!
Matthew Sweet’s career is a textbook example of what happens if you are exceedingly good at something that is not considered to be cool. In this case, that thing is the musical genre of “power pop.” Sweet is almost universally considered to be a master of the genre (usually defined as being a cross between hard rock and pop, with serious Beatles influences), and his best album, 1991’s Girlfriend, is generally considered to be a masterpiece, even by people who generally look down their noses at “power pop.”
As a result, Sweet is a cult hero to some critics and fans who appreciate the tight, hook-filled yet intelligent songwriting that typifies the genre, while remaining unknown to the masses who may – may – have heard one of the two or three Sweet songs that occasionally sneak into a radio or streaming playlist. Of course, the music geeks who write for Cover Me are Sweet fans; we’ve featured his cover work repeatedly, even giving him a birthday tribute featuring covers of his songs by other artists. But never before has he received the sort of career-affirming fawning adulation that can only be found in an “In the Spotlight” feature.
Sidney Matthew Sweet was born in 1964 in Lincoln, Nebraska, into a musical family. He learned to play a number of instruments, ultimately focusing on the bass, which he learned by mastering Chris Squire’s complex Yes parts. A precocious junior high school student, Sweet was invited to join a local cover band, the Specs, whose other members were college students, a situation that was either very awkward or, for the young Sweet, pretty amazing. In 1980, the band released an original song by the then 16-year old Sweet, which received both local airplay and allegations of plagiarism (it lifted a few lines from the Jam’s “This Is The Modern World”). The band broke up shortly after, and Sweet fronted the Dialtones until he graduated from high school and moved to the burgeoning music scene of Athens, Georgia to attend college.
In Athens, Sweet became buddies with Michael Stipe (who he had met at a sparsely attended R.E.M. gig in Lincoln), and while Stipe was spending most of his time with his friends Peter, Mike and Bill preparing to revolutionize “college rock,” he found time to collaborate with Sweet in a duo called the Community Trolls. Sweet also played guitar in Oh-OK, in which Stipe’s sister Lynda sang and played bass (and which did covers of their own), and collaborated with former Oh-OK drummer David Pierce in Buzz of Delight. This eventually led to Sweet’s getting signed by Columbia Records and leaving Athens, resulting in hard feelings from some scenesters who raised the time-honored cry of “sell-out” (although Peter Buck of R.E.M. has made it clear that he wasn’t one of them).
Sweet’s first album, Inside, was a bit overproduced, but displayed his power pop talent. In a phrase that would describe much of his output, it received some good reviews, but sold poorly. His second album, Earth, on A&M, was similarly received, and he was again let go by his label. At this point, with his musical career circling the proverbial drain and his marriage falling apart, it would not have been surprising if Sweet disappeared and became an obscure footnote in ’80s music.
Instead, Sweet got a contract with Zoo Entertainment, and his band, including Earth holdovers Robert Quine (of the Voidoids), Richard Lloyd (of Television) and Fred Maher, along with Lloyd Cole (of the Commotions), Ivan Julian (also of the Voidoids) and veteran pedal steel guitar player Greg Leisz, created his finest work, Girlfriend. The album received critical and popular acclaim, all well deserved. Sweet’s next two albums, the somewhat scattered Altered Beast and the more focused 100% Fun, had some excellent moments and a degree of critical and commercial success. Sweet then fell off the commercial radar screen with a series of albums each described by Wikipedia with some variation of “the album was met with little commercial success but with favorable reviews.”
In addition to being able to write a catchy tune, Sweet clearly loves cover songs. Although for the most part, his albums consist of original songs, he has released a number of covers as bonus or alternate tracks. In addition, Sweet has contributed covers to an enormous number of soundtracks and tribute and novelty albums. Also, along with former Bangle Susanna Hoffs (and sometimes billed as “Sid n Susie”) he has released three volumes of Under the Covers, comprised of more than 50 tracks all told. For our purposes, we will stay away from these three collections (one of which we reviewed here), and the other Sweet covers that have been referenced on this site, and head off to uncharted areas.
Community Trolls – Pale Blue Eyes (Velvet Underground cover)
By late 1983, R.E.M. had released both the Chronic Town EP and their debut album Murmur, and although they had gotten some enthusiastic reviews, the band was not yet a national force. On September 30, 1983, they played a “secret” gig at a club in a former warehouse in Athens. The show, a sloppy, drunken mess that was not uncommon for the band in its early days, consisted of two sets, sandwiching a mini-set by the Community Trolls — Sweet and Stipe. This cover of the Velvet Underground classic “Pale Blue Eyes” features Stipe on vocals and Sweet on guitar. A version of this cover later appeared in a low budget, unreleased film about the Athens scene. Shortly after this recording, R.E.M. began covering the song regularly, and released their own version as the B-side of the “So. Central Rain” 12-inch single, and on the rarities collection Dead Letter Office.
Matthew Sweet – Let Me Be the One (Carpenters cover)
After Girlfriend’s commercial and critical success, Sweet became a popular choice to contribute to tribute albums. One of his earliest appearances was on 1994’s If I Were a Carpenter, a collection of indie rock artists covering the so-unhip-they’re-hip Carpenters. A good number of the songs on the album, including Sweet’s reverent version of the deep album cut “Let Me Be the One,” were delivered faithfully, without any of the type of condescending irony that might be expected. (The most fun track on the tribute, though, may well be Shonen Knife’s phonetically sung, sped-up version of “Top of the World.”)
Matthew Sweet – Speed Racer (Danny Davis and the Nashville Brass cover)
The following year Sweet contributed a great version of “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?” for another indie rock tribute album, Saturday Morning: Cartoons’ Greatest Hits, which brought many back to the days of sneaking downstairs in pajamas early on a Saturday morning, trying not to wake up the parents. That year, Sweet also released a version of the theme to Speed Racer, which had to be one of the earliest Japanese anime series to be adapted for American TV. The theme that we all heard here in the USA was an adaptation by producer Peter Fernandez of the original, written by Nobuyoshi Koshibe, and performed by Danny Davis and the Nashville Brass. Sweet, whose video for “Girlfriend” had used anime (and who later released an album that initially was only for the Japanese market) takes the brassy original and makes it sound like a Matthew Sweet song, with a little pseudo-surf guitar section.
Matthew Sweet – Do Ya (Move cover)
Most people probably were introduced to this song from the ELO version, but it was originally done by Jeff Lynne’s prior band, the Move. It has never been clear to me whether the official sanctioning body for covers considers such a version to be an official “cover” or not, but there is no question but that this one, from an album of performances from Late Night with Conan O’Brien, is a cover. And a quite good one, at that. If you had to pick, it is maybe a bit closer in feel to the grittier original than the more produced ELO one, probably because it was live and performed without a full string section. In fact, unlike the other songs on the Conan O’Brien album, this performance of “Do Ya” was never actually broadcast, because it was recorded during the sound check to the sparsest of audiences. What they did play that June night in 1997 appears to be lost in the mists of history, but presumably it was something from the album Blue Sky on Mars which he released earlier that year, to, you guessed it, “little commercial success, but favorable reviews.”
Matthew Sweet – The Ballad of El Goodo (Big Star cover)
If you play “power pop,” then at some point, you have to pay tribute to Big Star, one of the great bands that sold little, had incredible reviews (sound familiar?) and have influenced innumerable other bands, famous and not. In general, Sweet’s covers fall into the category of “faithful” covers, and he seems happy to attempt to recreate the sound and feel of the songs that he pays tribute to. To be fair, when you are dealing with good source material, there is really no reason to screw around. So, Sweet’s version of the Big Star song “The Ballad of El Goodo,” recorded for a tribute album in 1998 (with R.E.M.’s Mike Mills on bass), but which languished in the vaults until 2006, takes few liberties and is either “slavish” or “reverent,” depending on how you feel about covers.
The Thorns – Blue (Jayhawks cover)
The idea of the alt-rock “supergroup” is kind of amusing, because, by definition, when you are alt-rock, you probably aren’t a superstar (although some of the members of Golden Smog, say, edge perilously close). It is, however, a handy way to categorize what happens when a bunch of musicians who are in other bands, or are solo artists, collaborate. In 2002, Sweet joined up with singer/songwriters Pete Droge and Shawn Mullins, who had similar musical tastes and similar under-the-radar careers, to form the Thorns. Their one self-titled album has moments, and sounds most like mid-career Crosby, Stills & Nash (not as good as anything CSN did in the ’70s, but probably better than most of the stuff they did in the ’80s and ’90s). Their cover of the Jayhawks’ “Blue” is good, and the harmonies are nice, but it won’t make you forget the original. And it must have been fun for the Thorns to have opened for the Jayhawks, who they clearly appreciated.
Sweet recently announced a Kickstarter campaign to fund his next album and an art project. You can check it out here, and if you contribute enough, you can get a solid bronze statue of a cat.