In the choppy musical seas–where teen pop and hip hop rule the (air) waves–Matthew Sweet’s elaborately produced homage to ’60s pop, In Reverse, scarcely made a ripple last year. But it’s a gem, an album of rich textures and gorgeous sounds steeped in the studio techniques of Phil Spector and George Martin.
While Sweet has always been highly regarded in the musical community, his profile shot up enormously in the early ’90s with Girlfriend, the album that struck a universal nerve, from its Tuesday Weld nymphet album cover to classic songs like “I’ve Been Waiting” and “Nothing Lasts.” You may also have recognized him as a member of Ming Tea, who performed the song “BBC” and appeared in the ’60s-mod-cum-Laugh-In “band” snippets interspersed throughout Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery. Sweet is a man who’s ridden the rock roller coaster through enough hairpin turns and drops that he’s learned to live for the moment, to wait through the calms.
Following this college radio and MTV-friendly breakthrough album were a string of more experimental records, yielding Sweet a lower profile in some ways with the record-buying public, a higher one with purists who admired him for turning out the occasional diamond rather than scads of cubic zirconium.
I catch up with Sweet mid-tour; he calls from a Buffalo, New York hotel, having sold out a Tuesday night in Pittsburgh the night before. It’s his first jag through the area since the album’s release, and his first as a free man, label-wise. “I turned in my ‘best of’ record and that was the last thing I owed under my contract,” he says. While his tour is selling out–with no label push–he’s getting airplay for a collaborative song he did “as a lark” with electronic-band Delirium, called “Daylight” (“It’ll probably sell way more copies than anything that’s actually me,” he notes bemusedly). His current band includes Velvet Crush members and longtime cronies Ric Menck and Paul Chastain, who’ve known Sweet since the early ’80s, when vinyl was still king and record junkies like themselves traded cassette tapes of yet-to-be reissued Big Star and Beach Boys recordings.
After struggling two years to free himself from his Zoo Records contract (which got gobbled up by evil teen-pop juggernaut Jive Records), Sweet got the green light to make the album In Reverse. With the label’s directive to go in any direction he wanted, Sweet organized the “deluxe” recording session of his dreams, enlisting legendary guitar/bassist Carol Kaye (a session player with everyone from the Righteous Brothers and The Mamas and the Papas to the Beach Boys), Menck and Chastain, guitarist Pete Phillips and a group of session musicians that could recreate–in the studio–the famed Phil Spector “wall of sound.” Imagine George Martin standing next to the console in a lab coat, with Spector at his most fly ’60s mod, and then have The Byrds or Burrito Brothers stop in for a track or two. From the rococo backwards trumpet flourishes, tape loops and grinding power chords of “Millenium Blues,” the album’s opener, it’s easily Sweet’s best since Girlfriend, with lyrics that have the poignancy brought by age and experience.
Sweet refers to In Reverse as a “smorgasbord of different sounds” that he’s loved over the years: the Spector-studio approach enhanced by backward tape loops and psychedelic sounds, an amalgam that–as Sweet well knows–never actually co-existed back in the day.
“It is a crazy record, and it’s weird that they encouraged me and let me make this record,” he says. “It’s one of those things where they (the label) think they like it until they put it out and have to sell and promote it.” With no promotion behind it, the record–ironically Sweet’s most written about work since Girlfriend, sold fewer than any of his previous albums.
Having legendary West Coast ’60s session bassist Carol Kaye provided an authenticity to the album’s sound: her tracks lend the session an eerie realness that transcends mere homage. “Not only did she have great stories [of famous sessions over the years], but she really vibed on the music,” Sweet says. For the portions of the album recorded live with the 15-to 17-piece group, the excitement of hearing a track being created on the spot–an almost extinct concept in these sample friendly days–was a moving experience. “She got teary-eyed listening to the playback on some of those,” says Sweet, referring to Kaye.
By coincidence, former Beach Boy Brian Wilson was recording in the next studio. He popped in as they were mixing “I Should Never Have Let You Know,” an orchestral ballad replete with harpsichord, organ and theremin. While Sweet paced (“I was horrified–I couldn’t be in the room,” he says), Wilson tapped along intently. Just as Sweet re-entered the studio, Wilson jumped up from his seat to proclaim, “I love it! I fucking love it!”
Songwise, the odd man out on the record is the rocker “Why Don’t You Write Your Own Song,” up there with Morrissey’s “Frankly Mr. Shankly,” as a single-fingered salute to every pontificating critic or well-meaning boob who’s ready to offer a musical critique. In other words, it’s the song every musician wishes he’d written. Sweet insists it’s about a fictional character–a composite. “That song just kind of popped out,” he says. “It was like, ‘Why don’t you fucking write a song, and I can tell you how I don’t like it,’” he says, laughing. “My manager was like, ‘Uh, I hope you don’t feel that way. Everybody thought it was about them.’”
Asked if he’s jaded with the music business and the current “niche market” state of rock (according to a recent McPaper spread), Sweet remains hopeful. He had recently been called in to write with teen-dreams Hanson. (Yes, all three of them; they only write as a group.) “They’d just been turned on to stacks of fantastic CDs–stuff we know–Todd Rundgren, Pet Sounds, all those kinds of records,” he says. He also mentions getting together to play with Phantom Planet, which features Rushmore‘s Jason Schwartzman on drums and another teen, Alex, who’s sung in Gap commercials. “They’re really talented kids–they must be 19 or 20–and what they’re deeply into are these weird Beach Boys records, the early ’70s ones, stuff it took us years and years to know even existed,” Sweet says, truly impressed.
Of course, everything gets rediscovered. Not just the hits of an era, but the music that bubbled just beneath the surface–the vibrant, more personal sounds you have to dig to find. “It gives me faith that rock music–or power pop, or whatever it is we like–will live,” Sweet says.
Well put, Matthew. As long as you keep composing your “teenage symphonies to God,” pop–as we know it–will endure.