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Music Review: Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs – Under The Covers Volume 2

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The Beatles sang “All You Need Is Love. Love is all you need." Well, that’s the main thing that Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs want you to know about the songs they have recorded for their new CD, Under the Covers Volume 2. They want you to know how much they admire this collection of songs from the 1970s. They are important to them, and you get the sense that they went into the studio to have fun and to see if anything magical would happen. If not, they knew their love of the material would carry the day.

Under the Covers Volume 2 is the sequel to Under the Covers Volume 1, which was released in 2006. The first volume contains songs from the 1960s. It was praised by music critics and was well received by fans of Ms. Hoffs and Mr. Sweet.

For an artist, the appeal of doing an album of cover songs is that typically the songs that are chosen are already very well known. The most popular songs can even become etched in the minds of the listener for decades. As Glenn Frey of The Eagles has said on many occasions, the group's fans have adopted their songs as the soundtrack of their lives. One downside of releasing an album of cover songs is that there will inevitably be some negative or unfair comparisons to the original recordings.

Once Mr. Sweet and Ms. Hoffs settled on the song list, I’m sure they had some other important decisions to make for this project. It was engineered and mixed to reflect the sound of recordings that were made in the 1970s. It has the feel of a record that was recorded with analog equipment. with a hint of compression and a lot of reverb. As the producers of the disc, it's fair to say that Hoffs and Sweet probably questioned whether they should play it safe with the arrangements or change them in some fashion. Experimentation with changes in tempo, key, and instrumentation are quite common in the production of any record, but especially when performing cover versions of well known tunes.

The main twist that comes with the Under The Covers series is that it affords Susanna Hoffs the opportunity to sing some songs that have traditionally been associated with male singers. (“Go All the Way” by The Raspberries is just one example).

For the most part, the arrangements on Under the Covers Volume 2 remain faithful to the original versions. In some cases,  a few more layers of harmony vocals have been added. That's not to say that the arrangements are completely rigid, though. For example, the songs don't always begin or end exactly like the original versions. There is some occasional studio banter, which gives the CD a loose, fun, feeling. “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” seems to have been the philosophy that was adopted for this record.

As I listened to the disc, it was fun to learn who the lead singer would be on each track. Sometimes Sweet would sing lead on the verses and Hoffs would do the choruses, and vice-versa. When I saw the song list, I wondered how well Ms. Hoffs would fare as lead singer on the songs that are so closely associated with male singers. It should have occurred to me that the Bangles have made a habit of preforming those kinds of songs ("Hazy Shade of Winter", "Mrs. Robinson", "I Fought the Law", and "You're Pushing Too Hard"), so I shouldn't have been concerned.

I enjoyed getting reacquainted with the varied musical landscape of the 1970s. There is a sample of just about everything that was popular in that era; pop, glitter/glam rock, progressive rock, classic rock, power pop, country rock, and adult contemporary are all well represented. Disco is noticeably absent, but that’s probably a good thing.

Most of the songs are hits, or were when they were initially released, with the exception of a few lesser known album tracks (“Willin” by Little Feat, “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” by Todd Rundgren, George Harrison’s “Beware of Darkness”, Big Star’s “Back in a Car”, and John Lennon’s “Gimmie Some Truth”). Dhani Harrison plays guitar on “Beware of Darkness”. Other notable guest artists on the record include Lindsey Buckingham (check out his blazing guitar at the end of Fleetwood Mac’s “Second Hand News”), and Steve Howe (guitar on Yes’ “Your Move/All Good People”).

Matthew Sweet handles most of the instrumentation on the disc, playing bass, guitar, and keyboards. A couple of session musicians were involved as well (Greg Leisz – pedal steel, acoustic and electric guitar), and (Ric Menck – drums and percussion). Sweet’s high tenor is particularly effective on the Todd Rundgren's ("Hello It's Me), while his more aggressive lower range comes through on Mott the Hoople’s (“All the Young Dudes”), Tom Petty’s (“Here Comes My Girl”), and on the aforementioned John Lennon tune, (“Gimmie Some Truth”).

Susanna Hoffs’ sweet soprano is at its best on the Bread ballad (“Everything I Own”) and on the Yes classic (“Your Move/All Good People”). You would expect that she would easily handle Carly Simon’s (“You’re So Vain”), which is a standout track. However, Ms. Simon seemed to deliver the lyrics with more confidence and forceful conviction. Otherwise, Hoffs’ vocal flourishes are right on target. She handles the high harmonies quite well throughout this record. Other highlights include Hoffs' turn as lead vocalist on the chorus and the bridge of The Raspberries' power pop hit, (“Go All The Way”). There is a charming sexiness in her voice on that song. She also takes the lead on Rod Stewart’s (“Maggie May”) and the Derek and the Dominoes’ classic ballad, (“Bell Bottom Blues”).

Under the Covers Volume 2 is a worthy successor to Under the Covers Volume 1. Hoffs and Sweet didn’t try to reinvent the wheel with these 1970s songs, but that wasn't really necessary. If their goal was to uphold a high standard of musicianship and to share their love of performing these songs, the mission has been accomplished.

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About Carl J. Mancuso

  • Sinj

    was looking forward to this records having loved the first. This one sounds a little more loose – get the special edition with 10 extra tracks including Killer Queen and Marquee Moon (clocking at > 10 minutes!)

    I’m on my 3rd listen through and it is growing on me (just as the first one did)…

    if you could distil sunshine onto a CD, this is how it would sound :)