B y D a v i d S i m o n s
FOR THOSE WHO require equal doses of old-style pop and pure modern sounds, Matthew Sweet's a pretty good place to start. Sweet's best songs--three-minute blasts of guitar and melody like "Divine Intervention" or his newest quick fix, "Sick of Myself"--strike a decent balance between the heroes of yesteryear and the overdrive of the current era: one part polish and two parts pandemonium.
You can pick 'em out a mile away: thick, compressed riff followed by a blast-off of drums and bass, with a touch of gymnastic lead guitar for manic effect. And just barely rising above the din, Sweet's squashed, unassuming lead vocal. A distillation of sounds that acknowledges the presence of everything from Revolver to Let It Be (that's both Beatles and Replacements versions). For a steadily growing mass of radio dialers, it's an enormously palatable mix.
Sweet's ascension into pop prominence has been a fairly recent occurrence. Prior to the release of 1991's Girlfriend, the native Nebraskan was a label hopper, whose Inside (1986) and Earth (1988) featured a smattering of rock mavens (members of Petty's Heartbreakers, the dB's) and got him some decent critical notices, if little more.
But Girlfriend, with its radio-friendly title track plus the heavily aired "I've Been Waiting" and "Evangeline," changed all that. By the end of 1992, Sweet suddenly had a large and adoring college/ alternative following, a decent chunk of album-oriented-rock airplay, and eventually his first measurable taste of success--a gold record.
Altered Beast, the follow-up, was something of a departure from the riff-heavy, melodic pop of its predecessor, and for its trouble ended up confusing many of the same critics who'd lauded Girlfriend's easy-to-swallow pop approach. If 100% Fun, his third full-length Zoo Entertainment release, sounds more like a concession to the snap of Girlfriend, Sweet's got the answer.
"I noticed right away that I was writing a lot of real pop-y kinds of songs," says Sweet of the batch of tunes written on the road during the Altered Beast tour that became the basis for 100% Fun. "It just seemed like that was the kind of stuff I was running with. So I just got this vision in my mind of making a pure, direct, simple kind of pop record, like a Nick Lowe record or something like that. When I made Altered Beast I didn't want it to be like Girlfriend, so this time around, I didn't want to make a record that was anything like Altered Beast. Although I think it has qualities of both those records--after all, it's still me--and I can't do anything that different."
Sweet did try a different hand behind the board for his most recent project: producer Brendan O'Brien, whose credits include the works of Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots and Soundgarden. For his part, O'Brien significantly juiced up Sweet's already vibrant rhythm tracks, evident on the album's ear-grabbing opener, "Sick of Myself," a song which lights up the VU meters in a hurry. No accident, as it turns out.
"It is pegging the meters--it's really distorted--I don't know if people realize how distorted that particular track is," laughs Sweet. "It was the first mix we did of any song, 'cause there was nothing on it, so we did it right there. And I'd never seen Brendan do a mix in person. And I swear the meters were in the red the whole time! And after it was done he played it back and I said, 'It is so distorted...and I would think you were so cool if you left it that distorted.' He did, but then later on when he first put together the whole album order from the half-inch, it was kind of a shock to me hearing it again like that. But I got used to it, and grew to like it as well."
Surprisingly, "Sick of Myself"--which currently sits near the top of Billboard's Modern Rock chart--almost didn't have a home. "We didn't know we were making a record when we recorded that song, I was just recording some drums for a demo. So it has that kind of 'don't-care' thing about it. Happy accidents--that's partly what the studio is all about, I think. I had written the song, but it was never demo'd because I wasn't planning on recording it. Since Ric (Menck, drummer for Providence's Velvet Crush) was there, I just asked if we could keep Nick our engineer there to do some drums. But then Brendan came by while we were playing it and got all excited about the track and said we should finish it. So I just said fine. And it's doing okay."
Sweet--who builds his tracks himself with just drummer Menck present, adding the lead guitars of ex-Television man Richard Lloyd and Voidoids alum Robert Quine later--had been familiar with O'Brien's multi-platinum conquests (O'Brien compiled Stone Temple Pilot's smash Purple at Atlanta's Southern Tracks, the same facility where Sweet set up shop for the making of 100% Fun). Still, Sweet didn't fully know what to expect from his new producer.
"I came into the making of this record with a lot of songs that weren't just heavy rock songs, a lot of melancholy melodic stuff. So it was kind of a mystery in a way about going in and making the record with Brendan. I knew on stuff like 'Super Baby' or 'Giving It Back' that we'd get a strong rock sound--he gets a real massive bass-and-drum thing--but I had no idea how it would be doing the more harmony/pop kind of song, what the vibe would be."
So far, Sweet's career has followed a pattern similar to other successful from-the-fringes artists: a core college-based audience followed by increased commercial exposure. At this point, he's one step away from an even broader breakthrough: a hit single. Important?
"I wouldn't say it's important for me other than in pure commercial terms...if you can get onto Top 40 radio, that's when you really start selling records in a big way.
"Though we do tend to think more towards college and alternative--I've been happy to see 100% Fun do as well at college as it has. I've had my first Number One track on the college chart with 'Sick of Myself.' I just never know....Making records, I sort of think, 'the kids will be into new things and no one will care about me anymore.' So I'm always surprised--and happy--if someone's into it."
This article originally appeared in the Springfield Advocate.
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