BEAST OF BURDEN ONCE A BEAUTIFUL GIRLFRIEND, MATTHEW SWEET AND HIS POP GIFT HAVE TURNED INTO AN ALTERED BEAST
Matthew Sweet is chuckling. At times, he's even laughing. Sprinkle in some giggles, a chortle and an occasional "tee-hee," and you pretty much get the picture: Matthew Sweet, one of the darkest songwriters in pop, is, in person, about as glum and gloomy as a high school cheerleader.
"People always say to me, 'Gee, I thought you'd really be a bummer,'" Sweet acknowledges during an upbeat telephone interview. "But I'm a cheerful person. I guess I work all my problems out in my songs."
Sweet certainly doesn't have much to complain about of late. He's currently one of the hottest and most critically adored acts in the alternative kingdom. Sweet's earned his standing by way of guitars, hooks and melodies, all punctuated by lingering lyrical question marks. It's not every artist who can strum pretty chords, muse about God and fret about romantic concerns on the same CD. Sweet can pull it off in the same song.
Sweet's rsum starts in his hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, where he grew up the "pretty normal" son of a lawyer and a schoolteacher. Sweet says he first got a taste for music as a teenager.
"I was writing songs in high school," Sweet recalls, "and I remember ordering R.E.M.'s 45 [of "Radio Free Europe"] through the mail from Hib Tone Records. I was a big fan of pop bands like the dB's, and I was especially interested in Mitch Easter."
Sweet attended a concert by the still-peach-fuzzed R.E.M. at a Lincoln club. He wanted more information on Easter. Instead, he became fast friends with the Georgia boys--so much so that after high school, Sweet wound up moving to R.E.M.'s hallowed stomping grounds of Athens, Georgia.
"I'd given Michael [Stipe] some four-track tapes I'd recorded in my bedroom," Sweet says. "He took them back to Athens, and the girls from a band there called Oh-OK kept writing and calling and saying, 'Come out and play with us.' Everyone was saying that Athens was the place to go, that it was really cheap to live there. So I went."
Sweet's relocation resulted in an EP with Oh-OK, a band that featured Lynda Stipe, Michael's sister, on bass. The EP, 1983's Furthermore What, was otherwise undistinguished, as was a subsequent disc Sweet put together with Oh-OK's drummer; the pop pair called itself Buzz of Delight.
But the Athens experience allowed Sweet to be swept up by R.E.M.'s growing prominence. Sweet made enough contacts to secure his own recording deal. A move to New York soon followed.
Sweet's gone on to release four solo albums, all of them benefiting from a rich supply of mostly East Coast-based musicians. Indeed, names like Jules Shear, Aimee Mann, Anton Fier and Chris Stamey--along with noted producers Scott Litt, Don Dixon and David Kahne--appeared on Sweet's first solo venture, 1986's Inside. Subsequent LPs--Earth (1989), the phenomenal Girlfriend (1991) and the recently released Altered Beast--have featured a more stable group of hired guns, notably guitarists Robert Quine (ex-Lou Reed) and former Television star Richard Lloyd.
"I just go out and meet people," Sweet says of his knack for making friends. "It never was as clear as me being a fan of theirs and searching them out. I just met various people in bands I liked and asked if they wanted to play with me."
Lloyd, in particular, adds greatly to Sweet's recorded material. Since first appearing on Earth, Lloyd's expressive brilliance has helped transform the perky, peppy Matthew Sweet of Inside into a tougher, more potent musical voice. Sweet says he's especially pleased that he's got Lloyd onstage for the current tour. It's the first time Sweet's managed to get the guitar god out for an extended trip. Sweet's touring band also includes new friend and former dB's drummer Will Rigby (I can't believe we're playing together," Sweet gushes), and ex-Cruzados bassist Tony Marsico, who raised eyebrows nationwide as a member of Bob Dylan's unexpectedly scruffy backing band on a 1984 Late Night With David Letterman appearance.
Sweet had a similar brush with fame himself earlier this year. He was asked to join pop guru Alex Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens for a reunion of the legendary Seventies band Big Star. Sweet and Stephens had worked together once before. In 1991, Stephens played drums publicly for the first time in five years on a Sweet-ened version of Big Star's "Don't Lie to Me" during a Zoo Records showcase. When Stephens heard that the ever-enigmatic Chilton had agreed to resurrect Big Star for a summer show at the University of Missouri, a call was placed to Sweet.
"At first, I was flattered," Sweet says, admitting a longtime love of Big Star. "But then I thought about it. I'd just moved to L.A., and I'd been touring for over a year. I was really burned out. I needed a rest."
Sweet pauses, then laughs. "And to be honest, I didn't trust that Alex would actually rehearse."
Big Star's Missouri concert went ahead without Sweet. The performance has just been released as a live CD. Sweet says the project "turned out so well" that he admits now to feeling some "regret" for turning the gig down. But Sweet says he feels good about recommending eventual replacements Jonathon Auer and Kenneth Stringfellow of the Posies.
Sweet says there's another reason he shied from the Big Star project. He says he didn't want to appear to be stargazing at the sudden explosion of interest in Big Star, fueled in part by Rykodisc's excellent three-CD retrospective released last year. "I inadvertently got connected with Big Star when Girlfriend came out," Sweet says, noting that fans and critics often find similarities in song craft between Sweet and Chilton. "I guess I just didn't want to get too close. I didn't want it to look like I was jumping on the bandwagon."
Sweet seemingly accented the point when he followed Girlfriend's pop brilliance with the more scattershot Altered Beast. The new CD seems less focused and more fluid than its predecessor. Songs like "Dinosaur Act," with lines like "You're getting old/Ready to fold/You do not feel like fighting," reaffirm Sweet's penchant for melancholy maybes. So does the new disc's debut single, "The Ugly Truth," which finds Sweet sneering, "You don't want to die/But living gets you down/We want you to act like nothing's wrong/Even though you heard a sound."
But musically, Altered Beast offers nothing even approaching the guitar n' vocal magistery of Girlfriend's highlight, "I've Been Waiting," one of the most stunning pop songs of recent years. Altered Beast, by comparison, sounds spotty. It comes off rushed and incomplete--even lazy at times.
It shouldn't, says Sweet. He says he recorded 25 songs for the LP and made sure the 14 most appropriate tunes made the final cut.
"Certain songs I felt worked in context of the record and certain songs didn't," Sweet says. "Although there are some things that aren't on the record that might be some of the best things we did.
"I've always been pretty prodigious," Sweet adds. "I used to write constantly, although I'm not sure if it yielded as much good material. I don't have nearly enough time today to sit around in my studio and come up with new things. But writing songs isn't the hard part for me.
"The hard part is the mental stress wondering if anyone's gonna like what I'm doing. But it's getting better now. At least I know there are people out there who want to hear em."
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