Covers albums are inherently hit-and-miss affairs. Unless the approach is artistically wild and radically re-interpretive (like Petra Haden’s a capella take on The Who Sell Out) or marked by sharp generic contrasts (like the reggae Radiohead covers record, the bluegrass Dark Side of the Moon or Seu Jorge’s hipster-friendly Portuguese Bowie tunes), the proceedings tend to resemble the unfortunate outpourings of fans. Even the most accepted cover records are held more as amusing curios than as cherished art, novelties rather than objects of lasting aesthetic worth.
With this in mind, consider Under the Covers Vol. 2, the second collection of covers of ’70s AM radio standards from pop veteran Matthew Sweet and Bangles vocalist Susanna Hoffs. Vol. 1 came out in 2006 and featured covers of some of the founding songs of what we now call power pop, ’60s tunes by the likes of the Who, Neil Young, the Zombies, the Beach Boys and, of course, the Beatles. Vol. 2 skews a little later in pop history, sticking to the ’70s. Besides the decade, there’s very little that’s changed in Sweet and Hoffs’ approach trajectory to the material. These are power-pop covers of power-pop songs; straightforward versions that usually lay the guitar-pop sugar on even thicker than the originals did.
So we have nicely produced arrangements that very nearly replicate the original recordings. We have glossy harmonies, in the midst of which the unique vocal character that both Sweet and Hoffs undeniably possess somehow gets scrubbed away entirely. This effect is particularly egregious on a few occasions, as in the duo’s version of Big Star’s dynamic jangler “Back of a Car” and the chorus of Tom Petty’s “Here Comes My Girl”. Its treatment of Fleetwood Mac’s “Second Hand News” has the same handicap, as the excessive echo effects drive Sweet’s vocal to clumsiness. Its failure is especially disappointing considering both Hoffs’ clear vocal debt to Stevie Nicks, as well as Lindsey Buckingham’s guest spot, which tears off an overwrought re-do of his closing solo from the initial classic.
Overal, the record is very much a mixed bag. Roots-inflected numbers like the Grateful Dead’s “Sugar Magnolia” and Little Feat’s “Willin'” amble along behind Hoffs’ leadership on the mic, while Sweet has some fun blurting out the hippie anachronisms of Mott the Hoople (“All the Young Dudes”) and Derek and the Dominoes (“Bell Bottom Blues”), daring listeners to remove their tongues from their cheeks. And the relentless harmony pronunciations on “Gimme Some Truth” are pretty impressive.
But the performances are uneven: Hoffs’ impersonation of Rod Stewart’s mild rasp on “Maggie May” is initially captivating and overcomes the flubbed guitar solos, but she sounds bored and unengaged on Bread’s “Everything I Own” (which is understandable, seeing as the song itself is boring and unengaging). And while Sweet talks out the verses of “Here Comes My Girl” with dexterity, his album-closing swing at “Beware of Darkness” is appallingly off, saturated with weak tremolo and entombed in persnickety enunciation. It’s not a total travesty, but it’s frankly poor and made worse by the fact that Dhani Harrison appears on the track, apparently unperturbed by this hollow rendering of one of his father’s finest compositions.
Under the Covers Vol. 2 is not a wholly unpleasant listen, but it’s not satisfying on a simple aesthetic level and isn’t really justifiable on an intellectual one. Generically speaking, power pop is already fundamentally about replicating the brightest stars of ’70s AM radio galaxy with smothering exactitude. If “originality” is a bit of a misnomer in the case of most popular music, it’s a completely foreign concept in the power-pop domain. Power poppers are not interested in making it sound new; they prefer to painstakingly make it sound old. As skillful as Sweet and Hoffs sometimes are at it, this release proves why it’s hard to get behind their cottage industry of covers collections. Every “new” power-pop tune produced in the last 30 years is already a practical cover of these songs, so producing actual covers of them is redundant. Even in light of the planned redundancy of power pop, this merits criticism rather than praise.