[26 August 2009]
In 2006, as you’ll no doubt recall, Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs charmed the pop-loving world with the winning, if slight, Under the Covers, Volume 1, an album’s worth of ‘60s-era pop/rock cover tunes (“Cinnamon Girl”, “The Kids Are Alright”, etc.) whose title hinted at a companion volume. It took a few years—Sweet released the underrated Sunshine Lies in 2008, while Hoffs, uh, cashed checks whenever someone used “Walk Like An Egyptian” in a commercial and worked with George Harrison’s son Dhani’s band, thenewno2—but Volume 2 has finally arrived. It finds the duo moving ahead one decade, though very little else in their repertoire has changed.
Is that such a bad thing, though? Hoffs and Sweet clearly love the songs they’re tackling, with the vibe throughout running more towards Fun Karaoke Night than Major Artistic Statement. That notion is reinforced by the slavish recreation of the arrangements of the set’s tunes; no deconstructivist breakdown of, say, Tom Petty’s “Here Comes My Girl” here. (And that doesn’t even address recreation issues such as Steve Howe’s appearance on Yes’s “I’ve Seen All Good People”.) These two rock lifers know a sturdy, unimpeachable pop gem when they hear it; why would they want to mutate the DNA of Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me”, when the proper response is just to sing the damn thing and remind the world how great the song is? (Sweet, as you might imagine, knocks the tune out of the ballpark.)
For every song the duo picks that they were seemingly fated to sing at some point in their careers—the abovementioned Rundgren cover, Hoffs’ smoky coo totally absorbing Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”—there are a few unexpected choices that elevate this project beyond aping the tracklist of a ‘70s SuperHits cassette gathering dust somewhere at a gas station checkout counter in Biloxi: obscure(ish) power pop from the Raspberries (“Go All The Way”) and Big Star (!) (“Back of a Car”); unabashed decade-specific cheese, on Bread’s “Everything I Own”; a nod to glam, though Sweet’s attempts to holler his way through Mott the Hoople’s “All The Young Dudes” leaves something to be desired; and southern rock (Little Feat’s “Willin’”, handled by Hoffs and anchored by Greg Leisz’s pedal steel, is a highlight). Hey, at the very least, if Hoffs and Sweet spur someone to pick up the second Big Star record or Little Feat’s Sailin’ Shoes, then this project will have to be considered a success… particularly if that listener pays $46,000 for either record.
Still, as a harmless thought exercise, it’s fun to think about the decade’s avenues that our intrepid duo didn’t explore: no disco, no funk, only a cursory glance at glam (shouldn’t Matthew Sweet cover Sweet???) and California singer/songwriter-types (where are Taylor, Browne, the Eagles!), no AOR, no punk! I suppose “Anarchy in the UK” doesn’t lend itself well to midtempo harmonizing. Here’s hoping that Sweet and Hoffs cover each other on the ‘80s-centric Volume 3, due in 2012.