Covers albums, at their best, provide dual pleasures: first, they defamiliarize the known, adding personal flourishes to songs we already know; second, they introduce less recognizable material, recovering pieces of musical history while letting us better understand the concealed influences of the cover artist. Cynics might dismiss the covers album as a shallow cash grab or churned-out contract filler, and no doubt cases in point are ubiquitous, but a good one requires delicate care in both song selection and presentation. Stick with the canonical and the album will be an unadventurous bore; restrict yourself to esoterica and you’ll alienate most listeners. Meanwhile, adhere too closely to the original versions and you’ll sound like a bland bar band or an American Idol contender cut in the first round; wander too far into deconstructive fancy and your own pretentiousness may drown out the source material.
All of which is a lot to contemplate, unless it just comes to you naturally, as it apparently does for Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs, who glide through Under the Covers, Vol. 1 with graceful charm. The two make a great team, having honed their chops together playing in the filmic Ming Tea, in-house band for the Austin Powers movies — perhaps not the most prestigious gig around, but this is not a duo lacking in power-pop street cred. Sweet has peddled his melodic wares for over two decades, and if he’s a long way from his early ’90s glory days of Girlfriend, he’s never lost the faith of the devoted; Hoffs, of course, led the delightful Bangles, a group written off only by knee-jerk ’80s-bashers. On Under the Covers they rightly sound like they have nothing to prove and want only to groove.
Sweet and Hoffs — recording, for no particular reason, as Sid and Susie — certainly bring the hits, though they’re careful to avoid bombarding us with the same singles we hear ten times a day on oldies stations. Thus when the Beatles arrive, as we knew they would, it’s in the form of “And Your Bird Can Sing”, from Revolver. The only conceivable criticism one could level at the original is a certain hint of smarminess as the Fab Four compare notes about their “birds”, but with Hoffs at the vocal helm the groupie-collecting undercurrent is flushed away in the riptide rush of her pristine voice. One can overcorrect the historical masculinism of rock; when Tori Amos took on male personae on Strange Little Girls it didn’t just function as a tract on gender roles, it sounded like one. But Sweet and Hoffs feminize the Beatles with good humor; as the cheeky liner notes admit, “in Susie’s opinion, ‘bird’ is one of the greatest slang terms for girl ever!”
Also adorning Under the Covers‘s selections are several more Hall-of-Fame-level luminaries. Sid and Susie sweeten the rougher edges of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, draining it of the ambiguously tender snarl that somehow left lines like “forget the dead you’ve left” sounding simultaneously bitter and affectionate; their precedent seems instead to be the Byrds’ version of the song. But if uncomplex, their cover is nonetheless delightful, with Hoffs’ harmony vocals filling in for anything lost in translation. Likewise, these two are too perky to replicate Nico’s hauntingly vacant vocals on the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning”, but they give the song a warm, comforting take that looks past the heroin and kink to recover the pop songwriter hidden inside Lou Reed.
Throughout, Sid and Susie alternate lead vocals, intertwining gorgeously on harmonies but generously stepping aside when songs call for it; thus Sid dominates the Beach Boys’ “Warmth of the Sun”, while Susie absolutely nails the Linda Ronstadt lead on the Stone Poneys’ “Different Drum”. Sid plays most of the instruments, with help from some longtime power-pop allies. Richard Lloyd of Television assists on guitar, ripping through a classic one-note Neil Young solo on “Cinnamon Girl”, while Velvet Crush drummer Rick Menck leaves his toms looking like lunar surfaces after giving them a Keith Moon pounding on the Who’s “The Kids Are Alright”.
Stepping away from the hit parade, Sid and Susie also dish up a healthy platter of less-famous ditties. Music geeks will swoon over the chamber-pop bliss of “Care of Cell #44”, from the Zombies’ impeccable Odessey and Oracle, and Love’s “Alone Again Or” makes for a somewhat more obvious but no less splendid choice. The heroic duo even bravely slows things down for the less immediate rewards of Sandy Denny’s Fairport Convention song “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” Then there’s the even more obscure: “I See the Rain” commences the album, a glorious 1967 single from forgotten band the Marmalade, while the Left Banke shows up not in the predictable form of “Walk Away Renee” but “She May Call You Up Tonight”, a welcome bit of musical archeology. The Bee Gees’ “Run to Me” may be a poor choice to end the album, not because it isn’t wonderful, but because choosing a song from 1972 when Under the Covers is described as a “veritable ’60s pop primer” in press material means Sid and Susie neglected the many splendors of the Bee Gees’ 1969 masterpiece Odessa (if there is a Vol. 2, I nominate “Never Say Never Again” to compensate!).
That’s a small complaint; the only other one worth leveling is that the Mamas and the Papas’ “Monday Monday” drifts by without leaving much impression, clearly not one of Hoffs’ more manic Mondays. Under the Covers may not deliver any jarring surprises (no selections from the Mothers of Invention or Blue Cheer), but it’s a loving tribute to 15 unimpeachable songs, narrated by two skilled and knowledgeable tour guides.