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The Trouble With Sweeney

Fishtown Briefcase

(Burnt Toast Vinyl; US: 29 Jun 2004; UK: Available as import)

Pass the EP, Please

[Writer’s note: I am going to consciously resist all lazy, quasi-intelligent impulses to pun up this review by using lines like, “There’s no trouble at all with Sweeney!” or “The Trouble with Sweeney? How ‘bout too many great pop songs!” I think too highly of you, dear readers, to stoop to such an expected, easy way out. If I break this promise within the course of my review, you have my permission to throw tomatoes at your computer screen.]


Let’s bring back the EP. Let’s stop using the EP as a marketing tool to tease and promote a forthcoming LP. Let’s refuse to believe that just because an EP is half the length of an LP, it’s automatically half as important. Let’s cease to regard the EP as an excuse to give fans some junk outtakes and redundant remixes. Let’s make the EP vital again.


The Trouble with Sweeney knows what I’m saying: it has just released the third EP of its career, the wonderful Fishtown Briefcase, a disc that has nothing to do with its last full-length (I Know You Destroy) or an impending LP. The six songs included on Fishtown Briefcase revolve within their own little world of indie rock, and there isn’t a bad one in the bunch. (Yet another benefit to the EP, all y’all EP haters! No crappy songs to skip over!)


There is a wealth of discernable influences running in the Trouble with Sweeney’s bloodstream: Spoon, Wilco, Joe Jackson, Elvis Costello, and Jonathan Richman to name a few. The Philadelphia-based quartet—guitarist/vocalist Joey Sweeney, guitarist Heyward Howkins, bassist Mike Conklin, and drummer Charlie Hall—breezes through the EP’s set of tunes (comprised of character and environment studies) with the informed, studied grace of any artist previously referred to up above. Sweeney’s songs are detailed slices of life, like the most effective of short stories, wrapped in infectious melodies and intelligent chord progressions.


There’s “Evelyn Rochman”, a bouncy, pulsing ditty about the friend of Sweeney’s stepmother who introduced him to the Modern Lovers. Sweeney sounds sentimental in this song, like a teenager infatuated with the titular subject’s life stories: “The punkest moment in the life of Evelyn Rochman / Was the night she went home with Richard Hell / They did cocaine under the Soho stars / There was so much more kiss than tell”. Later Sweeney tells the travelogue tale of “The Amazing Malcolm Smith (and His Off-Roading Motorcycle)” (a distant cousin to Randy Newman’s “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear”?) and exultingly declares, “We are so simpatico!”


Urban life is saluted in “The City Let Me” (a corresponding video is included on the disc): handclaps and ticker tape guitar flutters enhance its celebratory mood. “I always had a chip on my shoulder / Cause I came up poor,” Sweeney sings in his creaky, crushed velvet voice, “But the city let me have a free ride.” The churning closing track “I Hope Your Sleep Is Dreamless” sends its best wishes over the martial rise and fall of a snare drum and sympathetic acoustic guitar strums before exploding into a mini-“Hey Jude” finale. The song’s jubilant Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na‘s sound instantly classic from the start, the band easily achieving pop transcendence in the process—and they didn’t even have to wear matching robes to get there!


The Trouble with Sweeney knows a good tune when it hears one, evidenced by Fishtown Briefcase‘s cover of the Wings classic “Listen to What the Man Said”. With its warm keyboards, steady bass line, and gentle reverence of Sweeney’s vocal performance, “L.T.W.T.M.S.” is a tip-of-the-hat interpretation, devoid of the smartass irony so unnecessarily rampant in many modern cover songs.


So here’s a high-five to the Trouble with Sweeney for having the good sense to release an EP of brand new tunes that are short, smart, and catchy. As I try to make it through all of the lengthy, ambitious releases of 2004, I’ll take comfort knowing I can reach in my back pocket to revel in the 24 solid minutes of Fishtown Briefcase when things get too complicated.

Zeth Lundy has been writing for PopMatters since 2004. He is the author of Songs in the Key of Life (Continuum, 2007), and has contributed to the Boston Phoenix, Metro Boston, and The Oxford American. He lives in Boston.


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