Matthew Sweet And Susanna Hoffs – [Album]

Thursday, 10 September 2009

When Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs first got in bed with each other and dove under the covers three years ago to re-examine the work of acts like The Mamas And The Papas, The Beatles, The Velvet Underground and Neil Young, the effect was a touch of magic. With sugary but both sweet and sour melodies, Hoffs and Sweet (occasionally known as Sid And Susie) gave up some inspired interpretations of some classic AM radio staples that did more than simply reanimate the chosen few, songs like “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” “Sunday Morning” and “And Your Bird Can Sing” were positively rejuvenated; the endeavor was a success and a triumph of both kitsch and craft. In listening to that record's sequel however, one has to wonder if the success of the first Under The Covers effort wasn't driven by the novelty of it.

There's no arguing that the idea worked wonderfully three years ago, but noticeably absent from Under The Covers 2 is the nervous energy that was the spark in the first result; the first time was risky and no one knew if or how well it would work, and that spirit was both endearing and integral to the appeal of that first release. Here, on Volume 2, that nervous energy has been supplanted by the sort of confidence that comes while an artist is asking, “It worked once, why not again?” That sort of thinking usually guarantees a doomed affair, and about half of Under The Covers 2 certainly is.

To paraphrase Sweet's own catalogue, Under The Covers 2 is an obviously altered beast from its predecessor. Focusing more closely on on epic end of the B-team of the British Invasion (Little Feat, Mott The Hoople, the solo work of The Beatles' bandmembers, Derek And The Dominoes) and later American classic rock, there's no doubt that both Sweet and Hoffs are more confident in the project this time as the songs all seem to feature a 'personal favorite' air over one geared to popular appeal. The striking thing about the selections is the more muscular performance of the too; even the softer, more balladesque songs are relayed with more urgency and electric spark than the duo offered previously, and those tones overshadow the emotional center of the originals in some cases.

Even with that said though, it's impossible to deny the quality of some of of these covers. The passion poured into the takes of “All The Young Dudes” (which Sweet successfully turns into a party) and “You're So Vain” (only Susanna Hoffs could have covered this incidentally, hers is the only voice in pop capable of sounding as wounded as Carly Simon, if not more so) is staggering and both Sweet and Hoffs either do the originals justice or surpass them. The same goes for the flawless interpretations of songs long established to be Sweet's sweet-spot sort like Todd Rundgren and Big Star; tracks like “Hello It's Me,” “Back Of A Car” and “Couldn't I Just Tell You” (as well as, to a slightly lesser degree, John Lennon's “Gimme Some Truth”) are no-surprise inclusions here and there's little doubt who picked them, but their inclusion and performance on the album is still welcome because they are rock solid and unimpeachable.

In the same breath though, some songs (their performance – not inclusion) will just leave listeners cold. “Maggie May” is an easy standard, but the renderings of “Bellbottom Blues,” “Sugar Magnolia,” “Here Comes My Girl” and “Everything I Own” all suffer from being sonically unbalanced; by the track, the instruments may overpower unusually tepid vocal takes or (and Hoffs is primarily guilty of this) the vocals swagger too much where none is required – it's just frustrating.

Now, it's a fairly safe assumption that Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs will continue in the Under The Covers series and working together but, this time out, they've found themselves at an unlikely crossroads: to continue shooting dice on track selections as they have on 2 or, as was the case with the first Under The Covers, offer track lists with a few surprises that really engage listeners while making any missteps they stumble upon along the way either forgivable or fairly forgettable. The problem with 2 is that they got too comfortable and too confident; a combination that makes the bad ideas too obvious.



Between The Covers 2
is out now. Buy it on Amazon .

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