Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs

Under the Covers Vol. 2

Rating: 2.0/5.0

Label: Shout! Factory

It happens to the best of us. You’re listening to the Classic Rock or Oldies station or even just wandering about your local Target; you hear some 30-year-old song you’ve heard a billion times over. You think to yourself, “This song is terrific and all but it would be even better if that schlubby dude behind ‘Sick of Myself’ and that hot chick who sang ‘Walk Like an Egyptian’ re-recorded it?” Well, never fear. Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs have got you, ahem, covered. After their 2006 Under the Covers Vol. 1 offered renditions of ’60s classics so definitive they wiped the Beatles, the Velvets and Neil Young from your conscience (even outselling Rihanna, Kanye and The Fray in the process), they deliver the long-awaited sequel, which naturally covers the ’70s and is even more naturally titled Under the Covers Vol. 2. So, just in case ubiquity has forced you to forget that “Hello It’s Me” and “You’re So Vain” are fantastic pop nuggets, Sweet & Hoffs, under the not-at-all grating pseudonym Sid ‘n Susie, have gone and made ’em even better.

Or not. A good cover version is a delicate art form. Note-for-note mimicry is always better than risking the song’s sanctity with a novel, creative approach, right? After all, who wants to hear Hendrix blaze through Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” or Devo stutter out “Satisfaction” or Dinosaur Jr.’s snarling interpretation of “Just Like Heaven” or Fountains of Wayne’s flaccid acoustic take on “Baby One More Time?” Didja know Husker Du once covered the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High”? No, really. Those versions sound nothing like the originals: they’re like sitting on a handmade wooden chair when you could be lounging in a factory-assembled La-Z-Boy. Sweet & Hoffs are a bit kinder to their source material: they switch up genders here and there, pile on some extra harmonies every now and again and otherwise Xerox the same exact song you know and love. Hell, they replicate “Back of a Car” so religiously that, even as it’s playing, it immediately lodges Big Star’s original in your head; their version hardly even registers! Sure, no amount of pop gussying could make “Sugar Magnolia” or “Everything I Own” into great songs but their song selection can’t be as flawless as their simulations. Otherwise, this is precisely the covers album you’d expect Sweet & Hoffs to make: heavy on power-pop and singer-songwriters, light on R&B and metal, all white, and all but two of the cuts predate 1975 (and those two exceptions are by AOR staples Fleetwood Mac and Tom Petty).

Sweet may have worked with NYC punk vets like Richard Lloyd, Ivan Julian and the late Robert Quine but such sonic subversives are unwelcome here. How could they belong on an album that canonizes and mistily celebrates that which they rebelled against? Punk doesn’t enter the equation; neither Sweet nor Hoffs could justifiably tackle a Clash or Ramones song and they don’t even bother with the Buzzcocks or Blondie. Instead, this undertaking boasts Lindsey Buckingham, Dhani Harrison and Steve Howe. That’s right: there’s a Yes cover. It’s eight minutes long and the ballsiest thing about this otherwise obvious, unnecessary, unchallenging, repulsively reverent album. It’s also twice as awful as the Yes original, which makes it all the more impressive.

No matter how much feedback he layered onto his albums, Sweet was always kind of a proud wimp. Yet here, on “Gimme Some Truth,” “Here Comes My Girl,” and for some reason, “All the Young Dudes,” he tries really hard to rock, as though it’s a struggle. You gotta love his gumption though; there’s no better way to pay tribute than to strain for something you can’t quite achieve, like when John Kerry ran for President as a tribute to his idol JFK. Hoffs has a pleasant, inoffensive voice that suits the pleasant, inoffensive album- except when she summons an affected rasp, most notably on “Maggie May.” She can’t quite imitate Rod Stewart but she does a passable Bonnie Tyler, who was essentially Rod Stewart with a vag anyway. She does most of the heavy lifting on “Go All the Way” too, as Sweet exemplifies the male intimidation before a sexually forward female that underscores both the Raspberries song and most of Sweet’s own compositions.

Behold, there are lessons on Under the Covers, Vol. 2. Win Butler is no Jon Anderson, Regina Spektor is no Carly Simon, James Mercer is no Todd Rundgren, Craig Finn is no Tom Petty and so forth. Today’s greats aren’t as good as yesterday’s greats. Everything was better in the olden days. Genuflecting subservience to the past is what keeps the very good musicians like Sweet and Hoffs from ever ranking among the greats they cover here.

by Charles A. Hohman

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