Matthew Sweet Susanna Hoffs Under The Covers: Album Reviews

Susanna Hoffs and Matthew Sweet

Photo: By Charlie Llewellin from Austin, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

There’s probably not a band or performer out there who hasn’t, at one time or another, done a cover song. They’re the bread and butter of live bands when they’re first starting out and have limited material of their own. Then, once performers are established, a cover or two will often be thrown into a live set to get the audience going, and every once in awhile, you’ll find a cover song on an album.

But what about a whole album of cover songs? Well, it’s probably fun for the performer; it’s safe and established material, and there’s little pressure to be innovative on an already good song. However, from a marketing standpoint, it’s risky. Will fans want to listen to — and pay for — an entire album of someone else’s songs? When the performers are Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs, it’s a distinct possibility.

You surely remember Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs. Sweet found almost mainstream success in the 1990s with his Girlfriend album and subsequent single “Sick of Myself.” He’s always had a great ear for pop hooks and harmonies, and both of those strengths come into play on this project. Susanna Hoffs, meanwhile, is best known as the front woman for the 1980s group The Bangles, the group that taught you to “Walk Like an Egyptian” and did that “Manic Monday” song you used to like. They may not seem like the likeliest pair to get together for musical pursuits, but somehow, it’s a pairing that works.

 

Matthew Sweet Susanna Hoffs Under The Covers Project

Since 2006, Sweet and Hoffs have released three Under the Covers albums, and each one serves as a love letter of sorts to a specific decade. The first one consists of all 1960s covers, the second (released in 2009) is 1970s, and the third (2013) is — you guessed it — the 1980s. All three compilations are on Shout! Factory.

As for what you’ll find on these three albums, it’s this: largely faithful covers of largely known songs, the audio equivalent of mediocre fan fiction. They’re not quite note-for-note renditions, but there’s not a ton that feels especially new. There are no deep cuts here, no obscure tunes, and certainly no breathing new life into long forgotten tracks. All of these tracks had life, and in fact, with many of them, there’s real danger in sucking the life out of them.

And yet, it’s comforting and familiar. The music feels refreshing and honest, and the artists’ appreciation of these songs come through in their versions, which play like earnest homages. Sweet and Hoffs’ voices blend remarkably well together, and while they’ll never be on the same duet level of Lennon and McCartney, Simon and Garfunkel, or Buckingham and Nicks, they’re not in it for the long haul. They’re in it, one can only conclude, to have some fun.

 

Boss, Groovy, and Dope

The first volume of Under the Covers features songs from the usual 1960s suspects: Dylan, the Beatles, Neil Young, the Beach Boys, and so on. The songs that are the best are highly dependent on which originals you prefer, since again, there’s no real creative license taken with any of these tunes. Still, there are some empirical truths. Hoffs absolutely nails the lead vocals on “Different Drum” by Linda Ronstadt and Stone Poneys, while Sweet’s backing vocals provide wonderful bubblegum texture. She’s equally lovely on “Sunday Morning” by The Velvet Underground, and in fact, you could even make a solid argument that this song is better with a female lead. No offense to Lou Reed or anything, but “Sunday Morning” just takes on a much dreamier air with Hoffs at the helm. And “Monday Morning” by The Mamas & The Papas sounds lush and full, thanks to tons of studio overdubbing. Whatever gets the job done, you know?

On Volume II, the same commentary holds true: pick your favorite songs, and enjoy Sweet and Hoffs work some professional level karaoke magic on it. This one feels slightly less inspired than Volume I, though one has to remember that 1970s rock was so heavily fueled by cocaine that to (presumably) eliminate that element takes something away from the music. Still, it’s a good time. For example, Fleetwood Mac’s “Second Hand News” doesn’t have the emotional undercurrent of the original (how could it possibly?), but it’s fun to hear Sweet yell the “do it, do it, do it” parts with the enthusiasm of a fan who’s been actively singing along to Rumours for the better part of his life and is finally getting his chance to lay it down in the studio for himself. Carly Simon’s scathing “You’re So Vain” suffers from the same lack of stirring oomph; it’s nice and all, and Hoffs can shoulder the lead with no trouble, but it’s just harder to care about the song’s “you” or want to speculate about who this mysterious “you” might be. (Even if it is Warren Beatty, or James Taylor, or some other egomaniacal celeb, it felt more important when Simon was doing the seething; it’s just not convincing when Hoffs sings about him.) “All the Young Dudes” by Mott the Hoople fares better, especially once the chorus hits and we hear Hoffs’ melodic foil to Sweet’s sneering on the verses.

And then there’s Volume III: the ‘80s. This album is arguably the most successful of the three, as both Sweet and Hoffs were actively working in this decade, and their inherent styles align best with the decade of excess. Still, it’s not perfect. Their rendition of REM’s “Sitting Still” is remarkably good, with Sweet doing his best to mimic Michael Stipe’s emoting. The same goes for “Save it For Later” by The English Beat; it’s much less rough around the edges than the original, but it’s still totally listenable and even features a solid sax solo. Their rendition of “Our Lips Are Sealed,” though, is so faithful to the Go Go’s version that it’s almost indistinguishable, right down to legitimately hearing the chorus as “Alex the seal.”

 

Worth a Listen?

Really, there isn’t much not to like about the Under the Covers albums. Sure, they have their drawbacks, but for the most part, they’re a lot of fun. Fans of these two veritable veterans of the pop scene will surely enjoy their takes on favorite songs, and while fans of the original versions may balk at the idea of a cover, these songs are truly enjoyable.

Matthew Sweet Susanna Hoffs Under The Covers

 

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