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Most everything you’d expect is there on Matthew Sweet’s new album: great songcraft, a tackle box full of hooks, and compelling inner landscapes. But what happened to the guitar solos? The mad ones, the gracefully slipping, noisy, melodic ones. The ones that helped scuff up the sides of Sweet’s 1991 Girlfriend, marking it as the work of more than just a pop formalist with a yearning heart and a Winona Ryder fixation. Robert Quine dropping the yowling stray cat blues into the title track, pausing only to bend a Chuck Berry signature into a freaky sound only the ex-Voidoid could make, distinctive enough to be recognized through two closed doors, which was the way I first heard it. Richard Lloyd making an only slightly cleaner noise over Crazy Horse-style clang while Sweet pondered “Divine Intervention.”
None of that kind of wondrous guitar mayhem leaps out of the nonetheless densely packed Blue Sky on Mars, the artist’s sixth full-length release. That Sweet has come up with a pretty ear-catching disc anyway is a testament to his way with a hook. Sweet might very well have peaked on Girlfriend, but his sense of adventurousness and sheer melodiousness helped good-at-best records like the follow-ups Altered Beast and 100% Fun get over.
This time, Sweet has opted to play most guitar and bass parts himself, as well as a fair bit of the synthesizer and theremin ornamentation that replaces the over-the-top guitar heroics of Quine, Lloyd, and Ivan Julian. Blue Sky somehow manages not to feel all that different from the three albums that preceded it; it’s nowhere near as slick as the pre-Girlfriend Inside (a 1986 Columbia release that showcases period song-factory stalwarts at least as much as it does the guy whose name and picture adorn its jacket) and Earth.
Sweet’s concerns have hardly changed; conceptually, he’s still balancing lovelorn plaint and various pop-cult strains like sci-fi (Roger “Topographic Oceans” Dean provides Blue Sky’s cover lettering, and the radio hit “Where You Get Love” equates romance with “the Force”). Sweet’s comix sensibility has rung brain-bending twists on this mythos in the past, notably by contributing a sizzler called “Superdeformed” (“There’s something I should tell you before you take your blindfold off”) to the AIDS-benefit collection No Alternative. Here, he continues to credibly play the doomsaying loserthere’s being smitten, and then there’s being “Sick of Myself” when love’s object strolls into viewon warnings like “Hollow,” which could serve as a Soundgarden rumination on depression if the guitar was a little louder.
Even Blue Sky’s second-division songsbasically everything aside from “Where You Get Love” and the opening “Come to California”are a sturdy bunch. “Behind the Smile” is a sad admission that “I haven’t been a good friend since you’ve been mine” that appropriately quotes Badfinger’s “Baby Blue.” (With Aimee Mann swiping a riff and covering the song in the past two years, is this now Pete Ham’s most influential composition?) “Over It” is a 95-second fragment that betrays a good deal of work. And Sweet has rarely evoked Big Star’s nasty sugariness as openly as he does on “All Over My Head.”
“Come to California” is the real prize, though. Snuck into the final encore of a recent show, the song’s crunchy popola, nouveau-Hollywood lyrical obsession and setlist proximity to Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” made me wonder if I’d missed some Nils Lofgren or Emitt Rhodes gem somewhere. When it turned out instead to be one of the finest pieces of craftwork Sweet has proffered since his masterpiece, it seemed that he might as well have called it “We Want the Airwaves.” As soon as Volcano makes it an inevitable single, though, radio should get the point regardless.
The grit that Sweet and co-producer Brendan O’Brien have wiped from Blue Sky’s surface is at the heart of some of the finest moments on Sloan’s third record, One Chord to Another. The Canadians kick off the album’s first song, “The Good in Everyone,” with a jagged rumble of guitars and drums that resolves into a groove and song straight out of Something/Anything?. As audacious a group of borrowers as Cheap Trick, Sloan quickly lines up evocations of Badfinger (again), George Harrison, even Chicago. (“Everything You’ve Done Wrong” grafts Peter Cetera’s affectless vocal style to a track that pastiches together a half-dozen moments from Help!, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper. What it’s about I’m still not sure, but it sounds brilliant.)
The group’s playfulness does sometimes undermine its apparent emotional intent. “Autobiography” begins by sending up alt-rock self-absorption, then drops a sliver of “Dream On” firmly in the arrangement. But soon someone’s going on about shaving cream”I’m the lather”and while it’s obvious this is supposed to mean something, it just leaves the impression that the verse would’ve been better left with the outtakes. It’s not a flaw fatal to the song’s success, but it’s certainly a puzzling one.
These Nova Scotians’ well-deserved membership in the, er, teenage fan club is made clear by another churning rocker: “G will turn to D/You’ll turn to me and you’ll say/’You have done me wrong’/I wrote these songs about it.” Let’s just hope that doesn’t mean Sloan’s four members need to spend less time playing record hound and more paying attention to their girlfriends. Of course, if they don’t get their priorities straight, we can always look forward to the resultant pained tunefulness on their fourth album.CP