2 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
Matthew Sweet has managed to carve out a career in music in spite of himself. He's one of the many scattershot songsmiths to matriculate out of the Athens, Georgia music scene in the late 80s. (I'll try not to hold that against him.) His third album, 1991's "Girlfriend," was his break through recording, and not only because it featured a coquettish photo of 60s heartthrob Tuesday Weld on the cover. The sugary power pop was, at times, energetic and engaging, with the title track reaching the top ten and the quasi-Yardbirds psych of "Divine Intervention" earning play as an FM darling. Determined not to be cast as a pop idol, Sweet's subsequent albums, "Altered Beast," and "100% Fun," were dark, ugly, and less accessible. Sweet's public image rebounded when he formed The Thorns in 2002 with alternative folkies Shawn Mullins and Pete Droge. The move was a master stroke on paper, (Crosby, Stills and Nash for the 21st Century!), but not in terms of sales. If more songs on the album were as finely crafted as "No More Blue Sky," you might have remembered who The Thorns were when I mentioned them. Teaming up with gerbil-voiced ex-Bangle Susannah Hoffs in 2006, Matty recorded lame do-overs of sacred classics such as Love's "Alone Again Or," The Beatles' "And Your Bird Can Sing," and Fairport Convention's "Who Knows Where the Time Goes." The cover tune carnage nearly ended Matthew's career tout-de-sweet.
In an attempt to bounce back, Sweet has gathered his musical cronies, drummer Rick Menck, guitarists Ivan Julian, Greg Leisz and near-legend Richard Lloyd (Television), along with the sadly unshakable Hoffs, to release his 10th album, "Sunshine Lies." Sweet has termed it "power-pop-folk- rock-psychedelic-melodic-singer-songwriter-type stuff," and "sonic art nouveau." I'll call it a safe return to the style that got Matty there in the first place.
The subsequent mish mosh of "Room to Rock" is desperate, incongruous and noisy, making it as pleasant as picking up a Metallica concert with your filings. Sweet unwisely takes on the nasal tone of Tom Petty as the background music speeds along with the alacrity of punk era Joe Jackson. I've always thought Joe had some misdirected talent, but anyone who'd purposely ape Tom Petty needs to check for rocks in his head. Lloyd throws down a sludgy, grungy guitar solo that with a little discipline (no, not a whip - self control), might have made this rocker roll a bit more easily. "I need a room; I need a room to rock in." No, Matty, you need a rubber room to compose better tunes in.
Mixing the Rickenbacker-based harmonies with hints of his own "Girlfriend," Sweet scares up the first interesting performance on the album with "Byrdgirl." (Do you get Sweet's 60s reference to the Byrds? Okay, Matty, first you adopt Tom Petty's Adnoid's-R-Us voice. Then, of all the 60s groups to imitate you pick the blasé Byrds? Well, at least you didn't pick Zager and Evans. They perpetrated "In The Year 2525" in 1969. I hope its another five hundred years before anyone else has to listen to it again.) "Byrdgirl" has a gentler, more melodic approach with generous, wafting feel good tambourines in the forefront. "I came into a wildfire, running into the rain. Baby how could I ask you to come down again." Too bad the mix has a great deal of mud and reverb in it though, as Matty sounds like he's singing in a sewer next to Ed Norton.
The fourth offering, "Flying" takes off with a cacophony of irritating attitude. Now Sweet thinks he's Iggy Pop. More like Iggy poop. Lloyd peels off several wall paper-peeling solos that deserve to be in a song you'll want to hear again. "Flying" is a high speed, ear-bleeder that searches for continuity and loses everybody along the way. Menck is all over his kit at a ridiculous rate, resorting to the Bam Bam Rubble School of drumming whenever the fancy strikes him. This isn't flying; it's being shot across the sky on the tip of a Scud missile toward a minefield.
When Sweet goes soft, his compositions take on a veneer of innocence that's much more effective than his over-drive rock approach. Sweet's overdubbed harmonies are as saccharine as sugar, giving "Feel Fear" a Beach Boys/Ronettes teen angst atmosphere, despite the Charles Ives piano outro. Nice rebound, Matty.
"Let's Love" continues Matty's brilliant strategy - Here's a fast one. Here's a slow one. "Let's Love" is one of the later, enveloped in a wall of psychedelic chording that forces Matty to strain not-so-sweetly above the bee's nest of electric guitars. Unfortunately, Sweet also returns to his Tom Petty channeling, sounding as if he's singing through a wall of mucus. And the noodling background vocals are purdy but don't generate any passion. Can I get some love? No.
Midway through the album you'll realize another disturbing pattern has developed -- Matty really doesn't have anything memorable to say. A case in point is the textured title track, which is heavily dosed with nifty tricks but also awash with wasted words. Liquid backwards guitar riffs and taffy-textured pedal steel runs stretch across the speakers, peppering "Sunshine Lies" with mushroom-inspired effects, all transpiring with sunny intent that wouldn't be out of place on a record by The Cowsills. You'll recognize Susannah Hoffs pubescent back ups when they infiltrate your woofers like sludge backing up in a septic tank. "Oooh take my breath away." I'd like to Susie. Matty, please make Susie walk like an Egyptian away from the microphone.
With its nail-pounding beat, antagonistic back up vocals, and vocal in search of a style, "Sunshine Eyes" is eclipsed by Matty's clumsy, roughhouse approach. (I get it, Matty. The title indicates it's supposed to be a doppelganger to "Sunshine Lies.") Lloyd's lysergic lead near the song's conclusion should have gone on longer. He rightfully rates applause from the studio crowd (his strings were likely still on fire), but while his savage creativity burns brightly, the rest of "Sunshine Eyes" is short sighted and too much of an audio wreck to be enjoyable. It's a disjointed eye-crinkling assault that will make your mind feel as if Sweet's a sadistic eight year-old holding a magnifine glass up to the sun -- and you're an ant about to be seared to a crisp.
"Around You Now" is another pure pop ballad with rising vocals and rippling guitars in the Roger Mcguinn/Byrds vein with rising back up vocals. I'll recommend it with reservations, but I swear Matty used the same licks in "Daisy Chain" and "Let's Love."
The main problem with "Sunshine Lies" is the songs themselves. Everything washes over you in a polite haze of oohs and aahs without leaving an impression. It all sounds very nice and is meticulously produced, but you won't remember anything Sweet says. As a result, Matthew's "Sunshine Lies" is not-so-sweet.