The Trouble with Sweeney: Play Karen and Others

[21 August 2002]

By Terry Sawyer

When music editors sit down with take-out Thai, ephedrine, and their spent youth at the end of this year and they are scratching their nicotine patches trying to come up with a name for 2002, perhaps it will end up being dubbed “The Year of the Fey”. With Belle & Sebastian spawning a fleet of imitators who believe that Burt Bacharach is the best backdrop for cooler-than thou indifference, maybe the time for not rocking has come. Not to mention Emo, “the harder soft”, whose practitioners have nabbed impressive market shares with their yearbook emotionalism and vulnerable power chords. I’m not bitching. For the most part, I eat it up. I’m just trying to give you a quick prism to place Philly’s pop eclectics, The Trouble with Sweeney.

Their second EP, a follow-up to 2001’s full length Dear Life, is a roadmap for playing it quietly cool. It wasn’t until I read the band’s bio that I realized it was fronted by singer/songwriter Joey Sweeney, who also used to moonlight as a crabby-assed culture critic for Salon.com. In that role, he was one of my favorite barstool assassins, as he offhandedly capped musicians that, if justice prevailed, would be boiled alive for their artistic felonies. Thankfully, his band is not a case of a critic who simply suffered from groupie envy. Though, maybe Sweeney does secretly wish to thrash out in his boxers shouting ill-defined angst and resenting white boy privilege in that slumming way that only privileged people can. But that’s just rude speculation and there’s certainly no evidence on this EP, which culls together some of the best understated rock into something noteworthy.

“Karen” is sort of indie rock’s answer to “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”, a jaunty, mid-tempo pop plea that even includes some glockenspiel madness that’s sure to leave your head bobbing like a Peanuts character, “Most of Its Mine” sounds like the Johnny Marr playing for the “Bastards of Young”-era Replacements, almost British with its never care, well-read contempt. Of course my favorite moment in the song is when Joey Sweeney pronounces ask as “ax”, but I’m a pushover when it comes to minor flourishes of white boy soul.

As enjoyable as it is to take in The Trouble with Sweeney’s wide span of indie deftness, the real joy of the record comes in catching some of the well-turned phrases that slip through. “Losers Get Results” paints a narrative of epiphanies deferred and all the fumbling that comes from trying to translate the static-filled gabbling of the heart. Set to an absent mindedly plucked banjo and a sweet undercurrent of flute, Sweeney pens heartbreakers like “she said if all you do is complain dear, my thoughts were bound to stray”. The truth hurts, and Sweeney manages to pluck your emotions without resorting to eyes on fire or elevating love into the ether of pop cliché. This is accidental grace at its best.

“Come Home” comes in so low, you need to lean to listen. With rumbling lithium drums, distantly seeping organ and barely panted vocals, you could easily confuse it for one of the best Yo La Tengo tracks you’ve ever heard. Even the lyrics evoke things hushed and washed out, such as “truck wheels on the service road, make the loneliest sound, I’ve ever known”.

When Sweeney rocks out on the “Oh! It’s Mortifying!” it’s not the album highlight. Since they seem to work best when they force you to be attentive, this cocky number about the joys of various kinds of friction doesn’t set any records, but it’s not half bad. They’re great musicians, it’s kind of hard to imagine them really fucking it up.

Perhaps the EP’s strangest departure, “Waiting for Gary”, puts some quotations and words of Andre Gide to a sparse background. At first, I thought that this track had too much cigarette holder pretension, like the sort of thing that people in expensive glasses listen to when they’re writing personal ads: “I like single bean chocolates and deconstructing”. But, you know, Kathleen Carroll’s blithe “I’m just lying here” French makes for acquired beauty with repeated listens. The percussion sounds like a combination of computer keys and crumpling tissue paper which coupled with some easygoing flute and bossa nowhere guitar, make it sound like you’re listening to Anais Nin dictate her diary in politely damp undies.

The final track, a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York”, does the harmonizing duo a good turn by fleshing out the despondency of the original track. Gone are the tidal aahs, which to be frank, always sounded like ABBA doing back up to me. Where the original song seems to sound like a scarf waving cruise ship goodbye, Sweeney focus on the anger and sorrow of the person left behind. It’s a selfishly sorrowful take, like a face pressed up against rainy glass in a tacky airport departure lounge. Good eatin, kids’.

As the end of the year approaches and our ubiquitous culture nipples churns out more ephemeral garbage and we consume more and more to avoid the crushing reality of our own inevitable deaths, I can only hope that The Trouble with Sweeney will make somebody’s list somewhere. This isn’t a call to revolution, but it’s a solid record, haunting and smart, sensitive and sniping, the perfect piece of peace for an evening spent staring at the ceiling, thinking about what you should have said and how it makes you sad that all of your own poetry is only in retrospect.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/troublewithsweeney-play/