[9 December 2013]
There are a few reasons for artists to do cover tunes. Cover songs are often crowd-pleasers that bring in new and returning fans. Sometimes the artist has a new take on an old classic and wants to put their own spin on it. Or perhaps the song is seemingly well outside of the artist’s purported repertoire and the cover comes as quite a surprise to fans and critics.
Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs are no strangers to covers, especially considering the fact that two of Hoffs’s biggest hits with the Bangles were cover songs. “Hazy Shade of Winter” is originally a Simon and Garfunkel number and, although it was unreleased at the time the Bangles took it, “Manic Monday” was originally recorded by its writer, Prince, for the band Apollonia 6. The duo of Hoffs and Sweet have also previously released two cover albums together in 2006’s Under the Covers, Vol. 1 and 2009’s Under the Covers, Vol. 2. On the previous two releases Sweet and Hoffs (or as the liner notes identify them, “Sid n’ Susie”, Sweet’s first name being Sidney) performed popular songs from the 1960s and 1970s for collaborations on often unexpected songs originally by Love, John Lennon, Bread and Mott the Hoople.
However, the third volume of Sid n’ Susie’s Under the Covers series focuses on songs from the 1980s, the decade in which both became popular and, un-coincidentally, the duo isn’t breaking any molds here, even as they reach beyond their own genres (somewhat). To be sure, Under the Covers, Vol. 3 is a rather fun listen in many areas and it’s easy to hear that Hoffs and Sweet are having a lot of fun performing some of their favorite songs. And why shouldn’t they? As they said about their cover of Dave Edmunds’s “Girls Talk” (originally by Elvis Costello): “Sid just wants to hear it. Susie just wants to hear it.” The real question, however, might be: Do we need to hear them jamming on the old songs they just want to hear?
Sweet and Hoffs rarely experiment with these tracks, instead attempting to ape the originals as closely as possible and produce an accurate remake. Much of the overall resulting album feels like something between the remake of Psycho and Madonna’s cover of “American Pie”, both rather by-the-numbers affairs with not much soul or individual passion floating around the skeleton of that “accurate” scaffolding.
Or that would be the case if not for Susanna Hoffs’s great voice, which has lost nothing over the decades Sweet still sounds good on vocals and guitar, but it’s Hoffs who makes most every song better.
On their cover of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’”, sweet gives a very straightforward rendition of the song that might be very welcome at a Matthew Sweet concert. Here, the song sounds capable, but overproduced to the point that there isn’t much room for variation. That is until Hoffs takes over the chorus and makes it beautiful. Conversely, “Our Lips are Sealed”, originally by the Go-Gos, uniquely fits Hoffs’s voice, but this rendition is so close to the original, one wonders why the remake was required (besides the sheer fun of it).
However, there is such a passion brought to the emotional hit “They Don’t Know” by Kirsty MacColl (made most famous in the 1980s by Tracey Ullman) that the song becomes possibly the most listenable of the entire album. Hoffs masters the straightforward love of the song and perfectly delivers the centerpiece “bay-ay-be-ee” (performed by MacColl on both the original and Ullman versions) that Hoffs deserves a hug for that a cappella segment alone.
This sweet and almost bubblegum delivery works fine on XTC’s “Towers of London” and REM’s “Sitting Still” (both of which Sweet and Hoffs sing simultaneously), the aforementioned “Girls Talk” (on which she sings lead) and the dB’s “Big Brown Eyes”, on which she backs Sweet, sweetly. Still, the production (also by Hoffs and Sweet) gives the occasional (though never constant) feel of a watered down version of the original.
The Pretenders’ “Kid” is another definitive standout that showcases Dennis Taylor’s guitar and Matthew Sweet’s falsetto backing vocals. Hoffs absolutely shines here as she delivers the lyrics in Chrissie Hynde’s register, sounding fantastic while never aping her so close that the remake has no place for itself. Hoffs pays tribute to Hynde, but makes the song her own.
In a similar vein, Roxy Music’s “More than This” is a melancholy and enchanting cover mostly because of Hoffs’s dreamlike delivery and the perfect match Sweet gives with his well-harmonized backing vocals. That magic is heard again on Lindsey Buckingham’s “Trouble” on which Hoffs gives a whisperingly sexy delivery over the guitar and bass of Sweet while he beautifully backs her on vocals.
The Bongos’ “The Bulrushes” is perhaps Sweet’s best track for lead vocals. While not quite the tribute-cum-claim that Hoffs lays on “Kid”, “Bulrushes” is amplified by Sweets cool voice which bounds between imitation and reclamation. Even here, Hoffs’s backing vocals bring the song to a new level of beauty. Similarly, Hoffs’s vocals amplify the fun of the English Beat’s “Save it for Later”, but aside from the inclusion of her voice there isn’t a whole lot that is unique added to the song. While surely a capable cover, Sweet’s real delivery is saved for later when he takes on “Bulrushes”.
Sadly, The Smiths’ “How Soon is Now” not only fails to stand out on this album, but also fails to stand out among the multitude of “How Soon is Now” covers that have been recorded in the last three decades. Sure, imitating Johnny Marr’s guitar (or even Morrissey’s voice) would be a very hard proposition, but the guitars feel watered down and devoid of effect, while Sweet’s voice sounds thin and almost disinterested. As difficult as this may have been, the opportunity to simply do something different is never explored. The song is almost saved by Hoffs’s lovely backing vocals (the only real different element added) until she excitedly sings “Yes!” in response to Sweet’s “There’s a club if you’d like to go.” I would have believed the duo had missed the entire point of “How Soon is Now” if not for Hoffs’s incredibly haunting incantation of “So you go home and you cry and you want to die.”
I expected the same reaction to Echo & the Bunnymen’s “Killing Moon” and while the production doesn’t allow the song to either touch the original, or try much different with it, Hoffs again employs that chillingly haunting element to her backing vocals. Sweet’s lead vocals are capable (and more easily decipherable than the original), however, the poppy, bubblegum side of Hoffs (heard even on this album) is nowhere to be found in her sexy/ scary vocal delivery here. Hoffs takes a pretty good cover song and makes it great. “Killing Moon” is one of the true biggest surprises on this third volume.
Of course, Under the Covers, Vol. 3 has more ups and downs than the Texas Cyclone. There are moments that are very good and moments that feel watered down, by the numbers and plain. Often these moments even take place within the same song. Many of the choices, considering these songs were largely performed by peers of the duo, are somewhat obvious and their close adherence to the originals tends to assassinate experimentation. That said, nitpicking this album too much would be to completely miss the point. Under the Covers, Vol. 3 is not a massive statement that is expected to sweep every chart in the world. Instead this is an album of two friends doing the songs they want to play the way they want to play them and they seem to be having a great time with almost every second of it. Even the low and slow moments are most commonly saved by the voice of Susanna Hoffs which, all nitpicks aside, truly does sound better than ever.