SWEET MARS LANDING

Like a lot of things in life, I came late to the edgy melancholic jangle-pop world of Matthew Sweet. Stumbled across the album after the one that got him known and worked backwards to fill in the history. But although I’m slow, I’m loyal, and we have gone forward resolutely together to the extent that the Vinyl Connection Matthew Sweet Collection is pretty much complete.

(Just don’t mention the ‘covers’ albums with the talented and enduringly delicious Susanna Hoffs or I’ll probably rant about curators versus cannibals in a transparent attempt to cover a wave of pathetic dewy-eyed sighing of a magnitude to make the most  smitten adolescent gag. Phew. Did it suddenly get warm in here?)

IMG_3097

Back to Mr Sweet. Born in Nebraska, he was playing and making albums in the 80s but his exciting brand of re-invigorated power pop really broke through with 1991’s Girlfriend. If you don’t know his music and are not quite sure about what ‘Power Pop!’ is, here is a Matthew Sweet Warm-up Playlist to get you going:

The Byrds ‘Eight Miles High’

The Beatles ‘Day Tripper’

Big Star ‘September Gurls’

REM ‘Fall on me’

Now if you know all those songs, you may be thinking, ‘Holy Shit! Is he really that good?’ My unequivocal answer is ‘Yep, he is.’ Sweet found a way to breathe new energy into the classic guitar pop formula via a palette of songs ranging from keening vulnerability to stomping psychedelic freakout.

Oddly, the record I want to talk about is not his best. I actually prefer the albums either side, chronologically speaking.

IMG_3098

But I recently came across Blue Sky on Mars^ on vinyl and was tempted. Then I saw an intriguing little sticker on the cover and I was sold.

IMG_3102

Although never an autograph hunter, there is a small frisson of excitement when one realises that the hand that held the pen that signed the book/CD/concert ticket/buttock is attached to the arm of a revered artist. A sad reflection on our cult of celebrity, I fear, yet as I fumbled to remove the thin plastic packaging I was aware of a tiny tremor of anticipation and I wondered how the autograph would be included.

Texta scrawl across the gatefold?

Little paper insert: ‘Kind Regards, Matthew S’?

Initials on an old shopping list?

Here is how they solved it:

Writer ponders gulf between artist and fan

Writer ponders gulf between artist and fan

The structure is that of a classic pop album. Two sides, each with six songs from the short and sweet (1:37) to just under five minutes.

‘Going to California’ opens proceedings with stomping rock swagger and a simple but persuasive riff. ‘Back to you’ sits squarely in the Matthew Sweet songbook. It’s a strong melody and a bit of Beach Boys production adds colour, but perhaps not one of his strongest songs.

When he writes about love, there is usually an edge.

Instead of running

Stay and keep it coming

(‘Where do you get love’)

There is a slow groove to ‘Hollow’ that hints at a relationship weariness. It’s a head-nodder with a nice guitar solo, but doesn’t quite achieve escape velocity. ‘Behind the smile’ has the disappointment turned inwards. The singer so wants to be the friend and partner he aspires to, but somehow always falls short. The humanity, expressed in Sweet’s voice, is effective and affecting.

I haven’t been a good friend

While you’ve been mine.

Side one ends with the ballad ‘Until you break’. It’s nice, if a bit pedestrian by Sweet’s high standards.

IMG_3073

You need a kicker to begin the second side of an album and ‘Over it’ delivers brilliantly. It’s short, punchy and although the synth solo is slightly unexpected from this guitar-steeped songwriter, it works fine. The next couple of tracks are solid but unspectacular and sum up why Blue Sky On Mars is a worthwhile addition to the Sweet catalogue but not, perhaps, essential. There is not a thing wrong with any of the songs, they just don’t grab your heart or throat or gut as insistently as the best of his work. Having said that, mention should be made of ‘Into Your Drug’, whose woozy groove, neat distorted solo and cut dead ending would make it a shoe-in for the Vinyl Connection Road Trip Album.

IMG_3076

If Matthew Sweet heard about me buying the autographed vinyl edition of Blue Sky On Mars and rang to discuss the challenges of signing record labels without smudging, one of the things I’d ask him is, ‘What’s with the title? And the photos of the 1976 Viking 2 Mars landing?’

The only hint I could divine is in a sleeve quote from a university professor’s book on Mars:

The Martian sky – surprisingly bright and rather unromantically described as ‘similar to a smoggy day in Los Angeles’* – was given a bluish cast that was eerily Earthlike.

Maybe Matthew had re-located to LA (remember the opening song?). Whatever. If you liked Girlfriend but don’t have any other Matthew Sweet albums, try In Reverse or 100% Fun. Or 2011’s excellent Modern Art. If you don’t know his music at all, get Girlfriend too.

Another thing I’d tell Matthew is that – in a just universe – he would be as famous and revered as Michael Stipe. And I’d ask for Susanna’s phone number. In my dreams.

*

* 100% Fun has an absolutely brilliant song called ‘Smog Moon’.

^ Wonder how long this ‘space’ theme is going to continue?

 *

SOURCES

Girlfriend  [Sony BMG, 1991]

100% Fun  [Zoo, 1995]

Blue Sky On Mars  [Zoo, 1997]

In Reverse  [Volcano, 1999]

Modern Art  [Missing Piece, 2011]

*

26 comments

  1. Nice post on a very underrated power pop artist that in a perfect world would of been a star of the 70’s and not lost in the melody void that made up a lot of the music of the 90’s. Damn, I still like a good hook!

    Like

    1. Thanks Mr 45spin. This is treasured territory for us, isn’t it? The glory of Power Pop!
      I was originally going to write that in that ‘just’ universe, Matthew Sweet would be as revered as John Lennon, but wasn’t quite that bold. Still, he would certainly be as famous as REM, eh?

      Like

  2. I’m ashamed to say I’ve never heard a note of his. I’ll get Spotifying.

    Like

    1. No shameful feelings need be entertained, my good chap.
      For Sir, I recommend the album ‘Altered Beast’. It has added guitar crunch.

      Like

      1. That’ll do nicely, thank you Jeeves.

        Like

  3. An excellent critique of the album Bruce, and although I agree with most of what you said, I’d still put Blue Sky.. up in my top 3 of Matthew’s albums – the good songs are very punchy and poppy, and the ones that fall short refrain from detracting too much from the overall product.

    So is it Altered Beast or Girlfriend that claims top spot for you? For me it would 100% Fun!

    Like

    1. Well, it’s a bit like rating favourite Fountains of Wayne, or XTC, or whatever. Depends a bit on the day and the mood. But if push came to shove, I’d give ‘Altered Beast’ the No.1 position, closely followed by ‘116% Fun’ (with the extra tracks including the above-mentioned ‘Smog Moon’) and ‘Girlfriend’. But really, there’s nothing in the pile in the top photo that I’d easily part with.
      Thanks for visiting, Ryland.

      Like

  4. (Also, love your caption for the photo of the signed record!)

    Like

  5. Love Matthew Sweet! All his stuff has just such a cool sound. Also, agreed on the adorableness of Susanna Hoffs. I like your expression “enduring deliciousness”. I’m going to make that my personal motto. It’s inspirational. Ha ha!

    Like

    1. Thanks Marie. That’s just lovely.
      BTW, do you have a personal favourite in Mr Sweet’s emporium?

      Like

  6. A couple favorites: “The Ugly Truth” and “Sick of Myself”. Matthew Sweet is a tremendously talented guy in my opinion. It seems like he’s been kind of forgotten, unfortunately.

    Like

    1. Brilliant songs, both.
      Indeed, that was sort of the point I was trying to get across: his talent deserves better recognition. I really enjoyed his 2011 album. How many artists who started in the 80s can you say that about?!

      Like

      1. Almost none. You know how I feel about the musical wasteland of the eighties, lol. Matthew was one of those rare gems, like I talked about in my REM post.

        Like

  7. I love discovering artists later in their career. I was that way with Nickel Creek. Matthew Sweet has created some great music, agreed, though I’m afraid I haven’t updated myself so well as you have.

    Like

    1. Ah, it’s a tough job trawling record shops and the net acquiring kilos of music. And all that sitting on the couch relaxing with a coffee and an LP… I call it commitment, others mutter about obsession!
      Have fun exploring later Matthew – I don’t reckon there is a dud there at all.

      Like

  8. The Prudent Groove · · Reply

    Keep the intergalactic theme coming! Although I’ve not heard a lick of Mr. Sweet, if the VC suggests it, it deserves a listen.

    Like

    1. Well, certainly worth checking out if you have any leaning towards alt-pop, jangly guitars, melancholy vocals, etc, etc. For Sir, I might suggest ‘100% Fun’.

      Like

  9. I’m not sure what it says about me, but the phrase in this post that leaps out at me is, “the pen that signed the book/CD/concert ticket/buttock”….

    Love “Girlfriend” (especially “Evangeline”), but am not familiar with “Blue Sky on Mars”.

    When do we get to hear more about the Vinyl Connection Road Trip Album?

    Like

    1. It is said that you haven’t lived until you have had part of your anatomy autographed by a rock star. True! (or not).

      In the mp3 age, the art of compiling is in decline, but there certainly have been Road Trip albums… Hmmm…

      If Madam was considering investigating further Matthew Sweet delights, I would recommend the excellent and under-rated self-titled album by The Thorns.

      Like

  10. I”ve so enjoyed the comments – interchanges around this post.

    Just been listening to In Reverse again; brilliant album with dollops of psychedelic guitar.
    And for the romantics, this is an absolute MS gem:

    Like

  11. […] ‘Cortez the killer’, this is a curiosity worth having, even for those less partial to Sweets than […]

    Like

  12. So THAT is who Matthew Sweet is!! I’ve regularly fantasized buying that Susanna Hoffs covers album — (Are there actually more than one now or does my memory deceive?) — but have never been brave enough to do so. I’ve tried to parse that second (parenthetical) paragraph above to suss out either a recommendation or a warning, but am failing in the effort. I should probably just man up and put in the order. To quote Robbie Fulks in his song That Bangle Girl:

    I like that Bangle girl / She’s too groovy
    I love the way she sings and I / I saw her movie.
    I like the Bangle girl / And I’m not joking
    I wanna be her friend, and there’s / No harm in hoping.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Like Mr Fulks’ sentiments, though I find them somewhat lacking in enthusiasm (and dribbling). As for your parenthetical invitation, just yesterday (truly) I was wondering about a post on the ‘Under the Covers’ set. The two aspects that have slowed me down are (a) lingering lethargy, and (b) it’s a three record set. On the positive side, it would provide another op to talk about two artists I would happily fawn over endlessly.

      Like

  13. Just listened to ‘Holy War’ from Girlfriend. Absolutely love that song.

    Liked by 1 person

Comments and responses welcome for all posts: present or past. Go on, join in!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: