Tag Archives: Matthew Sweet

32nd Favorite: Girlfriend, by Matthew Sweet

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Girlfriend. Matthew Sweet.
1991, Zoo Entertainment. Producer: Fred Maher and Matthew Sweet.
Purchased, 1991.

IN A NUTSHELL: Matthew Sweet writes catchy pop songs and beautiful sad songs, and sings perfect harmonies over flowing melodies – and then brings in angular, ripsaw guitars to disrupt everything. And it sounds amazing! 70s punk guitar virtuosos Robert Quine and Richard Lloyd take over most of the songs, and lap pedal steel king Greg Leisz fills out the tear-jerker pieces. It’s perfect guitar-pop that demands I make a Sweet pun.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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Damn. I forget what I was going to write about. It was completely relevant, too, and really captured my experiences with this album. That’s what I try to do on this website, give some background as to why I like a record, and how I came to like a record; to help provide an assessment apart from simply what it sounds like. There are a million lists out there of “Best Records Ever,” in which some person (or group) with a modem (or media jobs) tells you “this is awesome because …” as if they can judge works of art by tallying up some checkmarks they’ve made like they’re evaluating participants in a sheep-blocking competition.

But I can’t do that. I can’t remove my own self from the evaluation of the record. And my experiences are different with each record, so none of my imagined checkmarks would ever line up between albums. It would be like judging sheep-blocking where participants also bring pigs and raccoons and fish to be judged. So I don’t claim that I’m ranking these records objectively. I never said they’re the best; I said they’re my favorites.

Great, now I’m further away from remembering what I was going to say than I was at the start. But I am now quite used to forgetting. I’m very forgetful. My wife and kids can attest to the fact that whenever I leave the house there is about a 50/50 chance that I’ll come back in about 30 seconds later because I’ve forgotten my wallet, or the car keys, or my phone, or the shopping list or some combination of all those things, and others. It used to frustrate me. Now I’m used to it. It still bugs/amuses my family.

I forget to complete tasks – leaving half-folded laundry in the living room I’ve walked away from. I forget to start tasks – leaving my wife to call the garage to schedule an appointment a week after she first asked me to do it. I forget I performed tasks – leaving hardware store clerks confused when I call to tell them I lost the tool I rented, and they inform me that I returned it a week ago. Yet my memory for trivia is such that I appeared on Jeopardy! several years ago.

Memory is a strange thing. My wife, J., can remember entire plot lines of shows we’ve watched just by seeing one brief glimpse of it while channel-surfing. Me: “Hey, look, an old X-Files! I don’t remember this one!” J: “This is the one with the missing elephant, and the aliens impregnating the zoo animals.” But she’ll read stuff I write about our relationship and say, “I don’t remember any of that.” She remembers details she sees; I remember feelings from experiences I’ve had. (And trivia.)

Much of my forgetfulness I can’t explain beyond that fact that it’s just who I am. Maybe I had the information in my brain, and then I just lost track of its location in there. And maybe some stuff was never in there in the first place, and literally went in one ear and out the other, if that’s indeed how hearing works and heads are built. (Otherwise, it only figuratively slipped out.) But some stuff I can explain. For example, I don’t remember a whole lot of stuff from my 20s when I often drank so much that I blacked out.

A black out is really weird. It’s a real-life Quantum Leap, an abrupt shift of reality in which, in an eye-blink, you go from having a normal, if drunken, time and then open your eyes to find yourself transported in space and time. You’ll be doing something … laughing, dancing, talking with friends … and then you wake up. But it’s different than waking up from a normal sleep because it’s generally very sudden and riddled with anxiety over questions like “Why do I still have shoes on?” “Whose house am I at?” and “How did I sleep so soundly lying on their brick walkway?”

In my 20s, those black outs were alarming and shameful, but I disguised my alarm by laughing along in the next-day’s amusing task of piecing together the night’s events; and I hid my shame by pretending I wasn’t embarrassed by having been rude to some people and incoherent to the rest. I eventually settled down, did some work on my personal issues and as of February, 2018, haven’t blacked out in a long, long time. And now, years later, the alarm and shame of the blackouts has turned to a sadness over all the stuff I forgot.

Some of the best stuff I forgot is stuff related to music, specifically around the time I was playing music in a band, The April Skies. We played tons of shows, in tons of clubs, over a couple of years and I remember very little of that time. Some of that is just old age, and if my former bandmates were to say, “Remember the time we played with …” I’d immediately pull up the memory and join the conversation. But some of those memories never formed. I used to laugh about forgetting such things, but 26 years(!) later, it all seems sad and like such a waste. There are many, many shows and events from those band years that I don’t remember, and since memories are really all that’s left of those pre-ubiquitous-video years, I don’t have much.

In 1991, we played the prestigious “CMJ New Music Showcase,” in NYC. We had just gotten representation in New York City, so this was the first of what promised to be many trips there to play gigs. And it was my first time ever in The Big Apple. I took such a big bite of it that I remember almost nothing from the weekend. I do remember meeting Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, who spoke with my bandmates and me about his love for “that new Nirvana album.” And I remember (thanks to a little prodding from Skies leader Jake) that we played a terrific set at The Nightingale Lounge. The rest is a blur.

Including Blur, on their first US tour and who we saw perform as part of the festival that weekend. See, as performers we got into all the shows for free, and we went to a bunch. But I only remember snippets. I remember Blur were very loud, and more raucous than their pretty-boy looks and house-beat songs would lead one to believe. I sort of remember Toad the Wet Sprocket nearly putting me to sleep, just like their songs on the radio did. I clearly remember Britain’s Slowdive … but actually I don’t, as I was informed by Jake that we never went to their show. (We did, however, see the tremendous Berserk!) And that’s just a little bit of all I don’t remember from that weekend. My memories are just a few drops in an otherwise empty mug of everything we did.

Worst of all, I remember very little of a performance by a guitarist who I’d never get to see again, performing songs from a new album that, although it had just been released, I’d already played a bunch. The album is Girlfriend, by Matthew Sweet. The guitarist was Robert Quine, and even though I don’t remember details of that show, I do know I woke up the next day thinking, “I gotta go see that guitar player again!” Quine was in the 70s punk outfit Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and played for Lou Reed and others. His guitar work, along with that of former Television honcho Richard Lloyd, who also plays on the album, and Sweet’s catchy songs and (dare I say?) Beatle-esque harmonies propelled that album into heavy, heavy rotation back in ’91 – ’92, and it’s never fallen out of orbit.

I first heard of the record from the single that was released that fall, “Girlfriend.” It was all over MTV, which was pretty astounding, as MTV was then transitioning to mostly NOT playing videos.

If you’ve read about other albums I love, you’ll know that GUITAR is very important to me, and GUITAR is all over this song, from the very first rising sound of sustained feedback, which bursts into a boiling solo on the left speaker while some crunchy chords chop through the right. A bouncing bass and oh-so-1991-housebeat drums enter next, and by 33 seconds in I’ve already decided this is one of my favorite songs ever. That guitar player on the left speaker is Robert Quine, and this song is just one on the album featuring his inventive, ranging guitar work. (He could pull it off live, too!) But it’s not just the guitar. The melody is catchy, and those harmonies, all performed by Sweet himself, are terrific. Check out the “ahh” at 0:50 and the “saw you comin’ my way” at 1:14. The lyrics are a plea, and turn a bit creepy at the end (“I’m never gonna set you free”), but meant something to lonely young men of the era, so I’m told. Quine’s guitar is great throughout, but his solo at 1:46 is fantastic – swooping and wailing all over the place. The song has so much packed into a guitar-pop record.

Guitar is all over the place on this record, and it’s not just Quine. The aforementioned Richard Lloyd also laces the Sweet sounds with some sour spikes of angular guitar. The opening track, “Divine Intervention,” places Lloyd front-and-center.

That opening riff sounds all wrong, but it sounds so right! And the squawking lead guitar alongside it hits all the weirdest notes possible. Sweet’s voice is tinny and high-pitched, with a tone not too dissimilar from Neil Young’s. The song’s lyrics can be interpreted many ways, but he claims they were his “coming out as an atheist,” although I could see believers taking a different message from it. The harmony vocals he sings with himself – for example the “Divine – Intervention” at 1:47 – really make the song, and his bass line and Ric Menck’s sloppy drums boost it from a typical mid-tempo slag. But Richard Lloyd is the real hero, particularly the soloing at 1:55 to 2:30 and 3:30 to the false ending at 4:20. (Sweet uses a Beatle-y “Strawberry Fields” ending on the song.)

Girlfriend is full of catchy little songs overrun with nuclear guitar assaults, as if a painting of kittens was trampled by muddy boots, but the result was way cooler than the original painting. Take one of my favorite guitar bursts on the album, “Evangeline,” another song commandeered by Lloyd’s ruckus.

At 0:15 the loopy riff starts over Fred Maher’s drum beat and Sweet’s playing. It’s a catchy song with lyrics about the eponymous comic book hero Evangeline, as sung by another character, Johnny Six. It’s more of what I love – terrific harmony “Ah’s” and “Evangelines” (2:00!) in the background, and that guitar. The solo at 2:10 is brief and brawny, but the one he pulls off at 3:58 is sublime.

Okay, okay, enough of the guitar lust, right? I hear you. It’s dialed back on some of the album’s slower songs like the sweet, country love-letter NOT to Winona Ryder, “Winona.” The song features lap pedal guitar virtuoso Greg Leisz, but Mr. Quine does show up for a sweet solo. Leisz and Quine team up again on the sad, sad “You Don’t Love Me,” a tear-jerker on the order of Adele’s “Someone Like You.” My favorite slow song on the album, again featuring Leisz, is the lullaby “Your Sweet Voice,” which reminds me of quiet bedtimes with my kids when they were little, falling asleep in their tiny beds as I read them stories.

As much as I love that softer side, it’s the electric guitars that keep bringing me back. This album came out in a magical year in rock music, and is what the 90s were supposed to sound like: catchy as hell with loud guitars. Instead it morphed into all those Matchboxes and Blowfish and Crows, Counted. That shit sounded week next to a song like “I Wanted to Tell You.”.

Once again it’s Quine poking his sharp axe through the jangle of Sweet’s pop songcraft. I really like the chorus, starting about 0:54. You could probably read one of the previous paragraphs again here … blah, blah GUITAR; blah blah HARMONIES. It’s a song about regret, and Quine’s solo basically runs through the entire song. But the piece at 2:18 is special; the one at 3:33 is even better. The song has a counterpart, of sorts, in the Lloyd-guitar-fueled “I’ve Been Waiting,” another perfect pop gem, this one about desire. “Does She Talk?,” a rebound-romance questioning song, and “Holy War,” a wish for peace, feature different takes on the guitar/vocals motif.

The album was written and recorded around the time that Sweet was divorcing his first wife, and the blood from the event is splattered all over the record. “Thought I Knew You” is an acoustic breakup song with Sweet’s pal Lloyd Cole strumming along. “Day for Night” has frenzied Quine action behind words of guilt. “Don’t Go” is a desperate plea.

But of course, the divorce songs I like best are the ones with the most guitar and harmonies, like the terrific headphones-enhanced-song about the after-effects of a breakup, “Looking at the Sun.”

I guess the bottom line is this: life is hard, and you’ll need as many memories as possible as you get older. But the memories in your head will evaporate, the edges will fade and increasingly the details will wash out. If you did something stupid, like drink so much alcohol that you forget a bunch of them, the best you can do is to try to recreate some feelings. Perhaps a great collection of songs from the era could trigger those feelings? In any case, take a lot of pictures and videos and look at them when you can. Because, as Sweet sings sadly, beautifully, “Nothing Lasts.”

Track Listing:
“Divine Intervention”
“I’ve Been Waiting”
“Girlfriend”
“Looking at the Sun”
“Winona”
“Evangeline”
“Day for Night”
“Thought I Knew You”
“You Don’t Love Me”
“I Wanted to Tell You”
“Don’t Go”
“Your Sweet Voice”
“Does She Talk?”
“Holy War”
“Nothing Lasts”

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96th Favorite Album

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De Nova. The Redwalls.
2005, Capitol Records. Producer: Rob Schnapf.
Purchased ca. 2006.

de nova

nut 96IN A NUTSHELL: As “Beatlesque” as Beatlesque can be, these four Americans know their way around melody, harmony, song structure and – best of all – lead guitar that supports the song throughout. The album presents a bit of a conundrum, as their Beatles sound is what I love, but it also probably limits my enjoyment. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – it had 3 fewer songs, and one or two of the remaining had been more “Redwallsesque.”

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Imitation has always been inextricably bound to rock and roll music. Nothing that has come down the pike (aside from a few unlistenable things) has been truly original – it has all been based on something that came before. (And even the unlistenable stuff is a mutation of previous, listenable music!) When I was a kid, they said that “Rock Around the Clock,” by Bill Haley and his Comets, was “the first rock and roll song,” as if Haley had gone to bed one night as a classical guitarist, then sprung from bed the next morning and suddenly pooped out a backbeat, 12-bar blues and a simple, repetitive melody.

haley cometsAnd listeners were supposedly suddenly hypnotized by a sound the likes of which had never been heard before, as if Poseidon himself had risen from the sea and unleashed his magnificent ichthyological ensemble on terrestrial beings everywhere. under sea

Other smarter, better writers than me have discussed at length the dangers of simplifying historical narratives (and for a historical topic as insubstantial as popular music, danger is probably too strong a word), but nonetheless I’ll point out that describing a single song as “the first” of any genre will obviously leave out much of the story.

Bill Haley had heard all kinds of music in his life, I’m sure, and “Rock Around the Clock” probably sounded like much of his musical repertoire, and similar to what he had been hearing among his musical colleagues, particularly his black colleagues who couldn’t get their songs heard by the white populace – artists like The Four Blues. Much has been written about white American musicians co-opting black American music, (far less has been written about black American musicians co-opting white music, but it has been done) and while it’s true that societal racism was at work in popularizing white artists like Haley, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis while many African American artists went unrecognized, something that’s not considered very often in the discussion is the fact that these artists – both white and black – were making music that sounded the way it sounded not because they were trying to cheat someone else out of recognition or money (at least not until Led Zeppelin, anyway) but because it was what they liked and what they heard around them. Musicians tend to play the music they like to hear, so it makes sense that “new” music will sound very similar to “old” music, and that white cats who dug the new sound (in the parlance of the times) would reproduce it in their own way. I doubt that anyone in the 70s really thought the “first rock and roll song” was by Bill Haley – I think it was more about hyping up the TV show Happy Days than anything else.

(Random thought – look at that Bill Haley and His Comets photo again. Can you imagine there was a time when a rock and roll band had use for an accordion player in the mix?? Although, when I l look closely, it appears to me that maybe he’s being phased out of the band)

Another reason musical artists copy others (although, as Picasso supposedly said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal”) is because the listening public wants to hear what they know. Acts from Bill Haley in the 50s through Radio Disney artists of today have benefited financially from having a recognizable sound that becomes distinguished precisely because it is not distinguishable.

beatlemaniaIn the 60s, the wave of Beatlemania was followed closely by ripples of Beatle-somia. other bandsActs like The Dave Clark Five and The Knickerbockers capitalized on their Beatle sound, and Hollywood executives put together a mock-Beatles band, The Monkees (complete with animal name and misspelled long “E” sound) that was wildly successful (in large part because of the quality of songwriters they hired.) Even big-time artists with careers of their own took a shot at incorporating That Beatles Thing, such as The Rolling Stones’ answer to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album Their Satanic Majesties Request.satanic maj

In the early 70s, the sensitive singer-songwriter James Taylor began pumping out his string of earnest, mellow hits and before you could say “Don’t let me be lonely tonight,” sensitivethe airwaves were flooded with story-songs sung by a dude with an acoustic guitar sitting on a stool. They didn’t all sound like James Taylor, but this fact was actually part of the imitation: each artist’s singularity was what was being marketed at the height of “The Me Decade.

Whether musicians are consciously trying to sound like what’s come before, like Kingdom “wir klingen genau wie Led Zeppelin” Come or whether a band just had a sound that some record exec thought sounded like, say, Led Zeppelin, one of the best ways to get some traction as a musical act is to sound like another musical act.

(A quick aside: Musical imitation also remains a booming industry in the nightclub concert circuit. lez zeptragedySo-called “Tribute Acts,” whose members imitate other bands with varying degrees of accuracy and sincerity, are some of the highest-grossing unsigned acts performing today. I’ve seen both Lez Zeppelin, an all-female Led Zeppelin tribute act that is remarkable in both its power and its musical chops, and Tragedy, an as-good-as-it-sounds Heavy Metal Bee-Gees Tribute Band, which melds metal and disco and both acts put on some of the best shows I’ve seen. There’s a tremendously interesting book about tribute bands called Like a Rolling Stone: The Strange Life of a Tribute Band, by Steven Kurutz, which I highly recommend!)

(One more thing here: One of the first “Tribute Acts” I remember was Sha-na-na, sha na na
a group in the 70s, named for a distinguishing musical feature of 50s doo-wop music, who covered 20-year old rock and roll songs, and who [after warming up the crowd at Woodstock just before Jimi Hendrix (!)] parlayed that narrow ability into a successful TV variety show – one of the most successful syndicated TV shows of all time! zimacostnerTo put that in perspective, imagine a few pierced guys dressed in flannel and thrift shop clothes today calling themselves, say, “Distortion Pedal,” and having a hit TV show on which they perform old hits by Bush and Lit and Fuel in between telling corny jokes about Zima, “Virtual Reality” and Kevin Costner. It boggles the mind.) (And it sounds like a great skit idea for Portlandia! Someone call Fred and Carrie!)

As has been well-documented here in this blog, I am a Beatles fan. To summarize, I really like The Beatles. beatles fan Billions of people are, or have been, Beatles fans over the past 50 years or so. I won’t go into details, but if you want you can read this dude’s BA thesis, written a few years ago by a student at a Marasyk University in the Czech Republic.

Since I like The Beatles, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that over the years I’ve enjoyed many acts that have been described in the press as “Beatle-esque.” Cheap Trick, XTC, and Matthew Sweet beatare a few acts whose albums are close to my heart (and possibly part of my Top 100??!!??) – acts that don’t exactly sound like The Beatles, but that clearly were strongly influenced by them. I know I like the sound, so I keep my ears open for acts described as “Beatlesque.”

At some point around 2005, probably on a message board about Stand-Up Comedy, I became aware of the existence of a young band from the Chicago area called The Redwalls that had a serious Beatles thing going on. band I think a friend’s band may have opened for them somewhere in the Boston area. I checked out the name on Youtube, and came across what has become one of my favorite songs ever: their first single from De Nova, “Thank You.”

What first captured my attention in this song was Andrew Langer’s guitar. It had become very rare, by 2005, to hear modern bands play the style of lead guitar heard on this song. I believe it was the influence of Grunge and 90s punk that caused the lead guitar to become so diminished in rock music. Bands like Nirvana and Green Day might throw a guitar solo into a song once in a while, but if they did, more often than not – as in the guitar solo in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – the solos sounded ironic, lead guitarlike an outright mocking of the idea of a “Guitar Solo.” Even less popular than the Guitar Solo was the idea of a “Lead Guitar,” that is, a guitarist who plays something other than chords and rhythm throughout the song. Lead guitarists like Don Felder, from the Eagles, and Jeff “The Skunk” Baxter, from The Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan, and George Harrison would fill up songs with all sorts of interesting fills and figures that added color and texture to a song. Part of the ethos of punk and grunge was to strip away all the frills and leave behind the power of a simple, loud song. I can appreciate this aesthetic, but I also really love a well placed, cool-sounding guitar. And “Thank You,” and the entire De Nova album, has this type of guitar work throughout.

The next thing that really drew me in to the song was the melodic, boop-de-dooping bass work of Justin Baren, one of the two brothers who lead the band. He plays a true Lead Bass, in the manner of classic rock bassists such as Paul McCartney and John Entwistle. Lines of melody that have their own path, but juxtapose perfectly with the guitar and the vocal melody. The vocals, on this song and throughout, may be what cause most listeners to immediately state “Beatlesque.” Logan Baren has a nasally, distinct voice, with a hint of a British accent (maybe he was hanging out with Madonna, another American with a British accent), that calls to mind at once John Lennon. lennon There have been other singers that sound a lot like Lennon, but Logan Baren may be the closest match who is not genetically linked. He sings in a deadpan style, but somehow he sounds sincere. The lyrics in “Thank You” are a nice reflection on a longtime love, and the entire piece works on all levels.

I immediately went out and bought the album. I was not disappointed by the rest of the songs.

The Redwalls have a bit of a political bent to some of their lyrics. The song “Falling Down”

is a screed against political censorship which humorously, and blatantly, uses several “words you can’t say on TV” to make the case for freedom of speech. This album was released around the time of that Great American Dark Nightmare of Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl Nipple,oops which, if you don’t remember, caused politicians across the political spectrum to take action to protect the nation’s youth from naughty words and glimpses of boobies while, shockingly, doing nothing to prevent lousy halftime shows at every Super Bowl since then. [Except Bruno Mars in 2014, which was actually pretty good.] “Falling Down” is a mid-tempo song with a bouncy drum beat, nice guitar work, and the Everly Brothers-esque vocal harmonies that are featured in most Redwalls songs. The voices of the brothers Baren, who trade off lead vocal duties, blend perfectly.

The songs “Glory of War” and “Front Page” also go political, offering a Redwalls take on war and violence and disarray in the modern world. Their political songs’ lyrics are not so overt, and don’t make you feel as if you are attending a political rally. The songs are good and catchy, and after a listen or two the lyrics start to come into better focus. The band definitely takes a “first, make catchy songs” approach to their work, and sound like they’d rather shoehorn an odd lyric into a good song than take the song in an odd direction. But their lyrics are never bad.

A close second for my favorite song on the album is “It’s Alright,”

which starts out as a straight-ahead rocker in the verse, lyrically referencing The Doors, but in the chorus (around the 50 second mark) throws in a tempo change, stellar harmonies, and drum break which sound – I’ve been trying to avoid the “B-esque” word, so I’ll say – Liverpudlian! liverpool In a great way. Again, the guitar work is nice throughout the song, continuing to be one of my favorite aspects of the band.

The Redwalls show their peace and love leanings in the excellent song “Build a Bridge.”

The song offers the cool hippy sentiment “Build a Bridge/and bring both sides together.” It starts out with a simple piano and builds to include horns and orchestration, and this makes the peace lovesong sound important, epic. The catchy sing-along chorus brings to mind the end of the night at a jam session with friends, in which anyone in the room is invited to join in. I think this band has a tremendous songwriting talent, for making the kind of song that makes the listener feel like part of the same club. Some bands can present music that makes me, as a listener, feel not cool enough to “get it,” but The Redwalls invite you in.

So? What are you smirking at? Because this band isn’t all that original? Okay – so what?!? The band obviously likes The Beatles, and so do I! I don’t mean to be defensive. It’s not the only thing I like about them – I like their songs, their harmonies, and especially their guitar. So what if they throw in backward guitar that could have been lifted off Revolver, in songs “Back Together” and “How the Story Goes“? What does it matter if a song like “Hung Up on the Way I’m Feeling,” with its sleepy lead bass, oohs and ahs, and close harmonies, sounds like it might have been cut from the side two medley of Abby Road ? Is it so wrong to have an affinity towards the best band ever? Does it really matter that “Rock & Roll” sounds like it might have been played in The Cavern Club in 1963? I don’t mind at all. The Redwalls are Beatles-ish, but I think they have enough of their own thing going, too. And they don’t pick obvious Beatles songs to cover live, so I like that, too!

Besides, if you’re going to pick a band to copy, you might as well pick the best!
simpsons

TRACK LISTING
Robinson Crusoe
Falling Down
Thank You
Love Her
Build a Bridge
Hung Up on the Way I’m Feeling
On My Way
It’s Alright
Front Page
How the Story Goes
Back Together
Glory of War
Rock & Roll

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