For established songwriters such as Hoffs and Sweet, you have to wonder whether it’s slightly galling for them to have commercial success with a series of albums of other artist’s songs. The singer-songwriter boom of the ‘70s surely taught the ambitious kids that to make any serious money it helped to have that all important songwriter’s credit. Perhaps, however, with the Internet and all, unless you’re aiming for total mass sell-out, it doesn’t make much difference these days? What goes around comes around, and as I’m listening to Under the Covers, volume 3, this time an album of 1980s covers by Hoffs and Sweet, my teenage son (who was definitely not born in the 1980s) ably tells me details about the original versions. Everything’s been done before, and particularly so here because this is, as the title states, number three in the series by a supergroup which could be called SweetSusanna (surely better sounding than the other amalgam of SweetHoffs).
But at last we can actually hear and understand the words to REM’s “Sitting Still”, enunciated with élan by Matthew Sweet. “Girls Talk” takes Elvis Costello’s song and emphasizes the important parts that may have been missed before, namely some interesting key changes at unexpected times and a guitar riff previously buzzing in the background but here brought to the forefront. Of course it’s not only the choice of covers which is interesting, but also whether it’s Hoffs or Sweet who takes the song on; hearing sweet-voiced Hoffs sing about girls talk was a clever decision.
Peter Holsapple’s “Big Brown Eyes” is well-suited to Sweet’s direct approach and strutting guitar as well as Hoff’s Spector’ish backing vocals. Chrissie Hynde’s “Kid” is respectfully sung by Hoffs; maybe it’s not an outlandishly original interpretation, but that’s not really the point — Hoffs voice is (as we know) strong enough to make most songs she sings worth listening to, so if Hoffs likes the song that’s a good enough reason in itself to include it. It would be hard for Sweet to go wrong with Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’”, and indeed it turns out not just alright but all right. The production and arrangement is close to the original but far enough away to make it stand out as something different.
Similarly, Sweet takes on The English Beat’s “Save It for Later” and wins by accentuating the guitar riff and the joyful repetition of the chorus. Hoffs gives a straight-up interpretation of the duplicitous “They Don’t Know” and despite being near to Kirsty MacColl’s original, is sung with enough verve to make it a success; although these are ‘80s moments they seem immersed in a ‘60s backdrop due to the musical styling. “The Bulrushes” and “Our Lips Are Sealed” must be lost classics revived as I vaguely recognise them, and they are pleasant enough, but they don’t immediately spring out as having been big hits back in the day. Further research reveals of course they were, in America at least, and I have to ask myself what I was doing or where on earth I was during the 1980s to have missed these.
Maybe my excuse is not just complete ignorance but what seems like an obvious divide between American versus British, in that the American songs represented here seem “typically” American, and vice versa. Well, whatever, “Our Lips Are Sealed” witnesses Hoffs pushing her voice to new husky extremes and as a result it’s a wonder.
Certainly in the UK it was impossible to miss the Smiths, you either loved them or hated them, and this version of “How Soon Is Now” is, well, fine. Roxy Music’s “More Than This” is juxtaposed with great effect — from Manchester realism to London elegance perhaps, and again, it is what it is; a good cover of a great song, and Hoff’s and Sweet’s vocals are more than enough to convince. XTC’s “Tower of London” is quirkily reproduced and Echo & The Bunnyman’s “Killing Moon” is appropriately doomy and atmospheric. Lindsay Buckingham’s “Trouble” finishes on a more American note, and it’s perhaps no surprise that it sounds like a Fleetwood Mac outtake.
Of course there’s no claim by Hoffs and Sweet that any of these covers were big hits in the first place, and surely it’s a good thing to find some new personal discoveries; perhaps Sweet and Hoffs are just trying to turn us on to what is in their record collections just like any other well-meaning music enthusiasts. As a result the album is charming and charismatic, and full of 1980s vigour.