Social Distancing Spins – Days 28 – 30

By Joel Francis

I hope everyone had a good holiday weekend (if you’re into that sort of thing).

R.E.M. – Reveal (2001) I counted down the days to this album’s release after hearing the lead single, “Imitation of Life.” While I still like that song and a few other moments on Reveal, it was the most unsatisfying experience I’d had with an R.E.M. album until that point. Reveal gets off to a strong start with the first handful of songs, but then just kind of floats on its pillows of keyboards. Reveal also receives a strong demerit for failing to include “Fascinating,” one of the band’s best late-period ballads. It was reportedly cut because it sounded too much like the other material, but Reveal’s biggest problem is that it sounds too samey, and few of its songs are as memorable – or beautiful – as “Fascinating.” Hearing Reveal made me wonder if Up, the band’s first album after the departure of drummer Bill Berry, was a fluke. I don’t begrudge the band for pressing on as a trio, but the great moments were further apart.

Bootsy’s Rubber Band – Bootsy? Player of the Year (1978) George Clinton’s P-Funk was a well-oiled machine by the time bass man Bootsy Collins’ their album dropped. Your mileage with Bootsy? Player of the Year will depend on how much you like Clinton’s signature sound. “Bootsy? (What’s the Name of This Town” and “Roto-Rooter” are exactly the type of high-energy funk exercises you imagine them to be. (“Town” even features some funky flute.) “Hollywood Squares” opens with an appropriately theatrical fanfare, complete with tympani. The slow grind R&B workout “Very Yes” features uncredited but very accommodating female singers. The original funkateer is in prime form here.

Matthew Sweet – Wicked System of Things (2018) After a delightful trio of covers albums with Susanna Hoffs, Matthew Sweet finally pivoted back to his solo career. That return featured so many ideas and guests it was split across two albums, Tomorrow Forever and Tomorrow’s Daughter. The Tomorrow follow-up features Sweet stripping down and rocking out in a trio. Wicked System features some Sweet’s most aggressive playing in nearly a decade, but just because the riffs are harder doesn’t mean the album is lacking Sweet’s power pop chops. “Eternity Now” and “Backwards Upside Down” are great pop songs that could easily slot alongside his ‘90s work in a setlist. “It’s a Charade” is a deceptively sunny protest song, thanks to the cheery backing vocals on the chorus. Wicked System of Things snuck out as a Record Store Day release. I’m not sure it is on streaming platforms, but it is definitely worth seeking out if you are a fan of Sweet or power pop.

The Replacements – Hootenany (1983)

The Replacements – All Shook Down (1990) The Minneapolis college rock favorite’s second album is a beautiful mess, starting with the opening title track. “Hootenany” sounds like something some drunks would rip through in the basement while warming up. In other words, it’s a perfect encapsulation of the ‘Mats’ IDGAF ethos. “Run It,” the second song turns back to the more familiar sound of the band’s debut. Side one ends with “Mr. Whirly,” another drunken jam free-associating well-known riffs and lyrics. My favorite early ‘Mats song kicks off side two. “Within Your Reach” is the first glimpse of Paul Westerberg’s more sensitive and nuanced songwriting, which would blossom on the next two albums.

By the time of All Shook Down, Westerberg was positioning himself as a Serious Songwriter. While the compositions and performances are undoubtedly better, they also aren’t as much fun. That’s not to say it isn’t a good album. “Merry Go Round,” “Nobody” and “Somebody Take the Wheel” belong on any solid Replacements playlist. “Sadly Beautiful” is Westerberg at his aching, lonely best. All Shook Down ends with a song called “The Last,” a fitting title for what would be the end of the line for the band.

Beatles – Anthology 1 (1995) It’s hard to believe, but right now we are as far from the release of the Beatles Anthology series as that landmark look back was from the end of the Beatles. It’s also hard to believe that something that was seen as the ultimate treasure trove when it came out has become so inessential today. Be honest, when was the last time you listened to any of the Anthology collections? Prior to this, it had been years for me, especially for this first volume. Thanks to all the spoken word interludes Anthology 1 has an audio documentary feel the other collections lack. At times it feels like the only reason a performance is included on the album is because it was featured in the film. It’s great fun watching the Fab Four ham it up on Morcambe and Wise, but hearing only the audio is much less fun (and insightful). Hearing the Decca audition tape and the Quarrymen performances are historically interesting but not musically vital. In other words, I’m glad they’re here and that I have them, but I rarely reach for them.

Of course, the big draw for this set was the reunion track “Free As a Bird.” I liked it at the time and I still enjoy it today. Then again, I am also a big fan of George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr as individual musicians, so I was already standing on third before the first pitch was thrown. Hearing these three interact musically on John Lennon’s recording is a delight, and frankly Anthology 1’s best moment. That’s not to say there aren’t other great songs here. The early versions of “One After 909” and hearing “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Eight Days a Week” are definite high points. But the band was finding their footing more than they were experimenting. That came in the later, superior, Anthologies.

Matthew Sweet returns to Midwest Roots

(Above: Matthew Sweet’s performance is definitely a time capsule.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Matthew Sweet is bringing it all back home.

The power-pop singer/songwriter grew up in Lincoln, Neb., but spent 20 years living in Los Angeles.

Last year he returned to his Midwest roots and moved to Omaha.

Around the same time, Sweet released a third volume of covers recorded with former Bangles singer Susanna Hoffs. The project focused on the 1980s and let Sweet play songs from his formative years as a music fan and musician.

Musically, he is returning home too. Sweet, who performs Tuesday at Knuckleheads, has been extensively revisiting his breakthrough album, 1991’s “Girlfriend,” along with its follow-ups, “Altered Beast” and “100% Fun.”

“I guess I have been a bit nostalgic lately,” Sweet said, revealing the idea to revisit “Girlfriend” came out of marking the album’s 20th anniversary.

“The crowds have been so happy to experience the feelings they had back then. It’s not a thing I feel weird about because it feels really natural and healthy.”

Sweet and Hoffs started their collaborative cover albums back in 2006. Each installment focused on a different decade, starting with the 1960s. The series concluded with the ’80s, the decade that saw Hoffs’ greatest commercial success with the Bangles and Sweet’s initial success in the music world.

matthewsweet“I graduated from high school in 1983,” Sweet said. “We covered XTC’s ‘Towers of London’ on our last album. I remember when I bought (the XTC album) ‘Black Sea.’ I definitely got to experience more connections like that on this album than the ’60s and ’70s projects.”

Four years passed between the second and third “Under the Covers” volumes. Sweet said their record label, Shout Factory, grew impatient waiting for the next installment.

“It took a long time for the ’80s volume to come together. We were like a year and a half late turning it in,” Sweet said. “Susanna and I still Skype tracks back and forth occasionally, but I feel the trio of albums will be it for us. We have not planned on doing a ’90s album.”

The 1990s were good to Sweet. After bouncing between labels and releasing a pair of albums in the late ’80s, Sweet found a home at Zoo Entertainment and started a run of critically acclaimed albums that also landed a handful of tracks in the Top 40.

Sweet moved from New York to Los Angeles to capitalize on his success.

“I’ve lived on both coasts and in the South,” Sweet said. “It’s been real comfortable to go back (to Nebraska). I’m rediscovering things I remember liking as a kid, like seasons. I’m a big fan of weather and nature, and it is amazing to experience distinct times of the year and see them change.”

Now back in Omaha, Sweet is no longer affiliated with a label. He plans to record at home, and his fans are helping.

Money for his 12th solo album eclipsed its Kickstarter goal of $32,000. The project’s funding closed Saturday. He’s now writing songs.

“I’m also going to make demos of every song, because I haven’t done it in forever because we’ve just recorded as we went. Those will be available for fans and also will let me pick and choose what I want to use,” Sweet said.

Fussing over demos is almost exactly opposite of the approach Sweet took on his previous solo album, 2011’s “Modern Art.” For that album, Sweet intentionally tried to keep his right brain out of the process, making up melodies and recording where his imagination took them.

“That was almost a stream-of-conscious process,” Sweet said. “I’d hum something into my iPhone, then overdub on that and build a whole song.”

Sweet hopes to have the Kickstarter album out in the spring. Right now there isn’t any new material to debut on tour, but Sweet hopes it won’t be long before he can play new songs.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve played Kansas City,” Sweet said. “Hopefully with me living just up the road now we can make it there more frequently.”

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