While Sweet seems to have crawled from the same primordial pop and jangle as contemporaries like Teenage Fanclub and Velvet Crush (whom he has produced for)—with all the requisite traces of Byrds and Big Star—there’s a uniqueness to his output that dispels any anxiety of influence. And, whether unleashing three-chord rock or settling back into plush Phil Spector-ish production (as on 1999’s In Reverse), there’s something universally likable about his power pop vision. In culling his brightest spots on this collection, you are left with towering, euphoric guitar pop that takes a hold and doesn’t let go.
A remarkable cast of musicians buoys Sweet’s tunes. Guitarists Richard Lloyd (Television) and Robert Quine (Richard Hell & the Voidoids, Lou Reed) show up as longtime collaborators here, as does drummer Fred Maher, who also produced Girlfriend. At the heart of it all, though, is Sweet’s song-craft—wistful yet muscular with his earnest lyrics rarely hiding behind metaphor or irony. (Try “I’ve been waiting / and I want to have you”, from “I’ve Been Waiting”, or “Once you had a love and you let it go / Now you know that matters”, from “What Matters”, on for size.)
A survey of the tracks finds Sweet not so much evolving over the decade as staying true to his distinct power pop stance and refining it. The first four tracks, from Girlfriend, establish Sweet’s various modes. There’s the crunch of “Divine Intervention”, with Sweet’s innocently metaphysical lyrics; the jangly and melodic “I’ve Been Waiting”; Quine’s blistering riffs tearing a hole in the ozone on the title track; and weepy pedal steel sprinkling country rock all over the (completely un-ironic) ballad “You Don’t Love Me”.
Producer Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots) brings his bombast to 1995’s 100 % Fun, fattening the guitars to produce two of Sweet’s finest moments, the tear-it-up rock of “Sick of Myself” and the gorgeously powerful “We’re the Same”. O’Brien’s heavy rock touch becomes a bit too rich on the follow-up, Blue Sky on Mars, evidenced here by “Where You Get Love”, where zany synth meets layered power chords to produce something not altogether pleasant. On “Behind the Smile”, truly a great song, O’Brien’s production gets increasingly goofy, with the guitars fattened to a cliché and an ELO-like vocal effect cropping up needlessly in the song’s coda. (In O’Brien’s defense, he seems to be trying to widen Sweet’s palette in the absence of the invaluable Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine.)
The tracks from In Reverse show up as a nice revelation. Sweet went for Phil Spector/Brian Wilson sonic layers on “If Time Permits”, even recording in the same Hollywood studio where Brian endlessly tinkered with Pet Sounds. You can hear ‘60s sessions legend Carol Kaye’s loping bass, multi-stacked Matthew Sweets harmonizing and even sleigh bell and theremin bolstering Sweet’s warm pop. There’s also some nifty backwards guitar leads from Greg Leisz, who lays them down to even more blissful effect on “What Matters”, making us forget for a moment the aching void left by Quine and Lloyd.
There are two previously unreleased tracks tacked to the end of the compilation, something artists feel compelled to do on a best-of (yet without feeling compelled to offer anything worthwhile). “Ready” should climb back into whatever vault it came from and take its “Jean Genie” riff and boring rawk posing with it. “So Far” has a sweet, sailing chorus that emerges from all the crunching riffage, but it doesn’t have the staying power of Sweet’s better moments. These small trespasses are easily forgiven, however, for Sweet is certainly one of the finest candidates for a compilation; and this collection, by and large, straightens out all of the bumps in his canon and produces something not unlike a power pop version of Zoloft. I hear the sound of a thousand air guitar cases unsnapping already.
// Notes from the Road
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