Altered Sweet

Various Artists

Futureman Records, 2018

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 04/27/2018

Any tribute album worth its salt accomplishes two things. One, it increases the listener’s appreciation of the act whose work is being covered. Two, it increases the listener’s appreciation of and curiosity about the (in most cases) lesser-known acts who are doing the covering.

Much to my delight, Altered Sweet, a tribute album I wasn’t 100 percent sure I would even listen to—given that up to now I’ve had only a passing familiarity with Matthew Sweet—succeeds on both counts. The liner notes to this double-disc, 27-track album describe Sweet as “one of pop’s most dedicated and most insightful songwriters” whose music is “all hooks and melodies and spark.” Fair enough; I’ll just lead with my own ignorance here by admitting that, aside from catching the occasional radio single, I’ve only ever listened to one Matthew Sweet album in my life (the middling Blue Sky On Mars, which I reviewed back in 1997, and not counting The Thorns, which I was into because of Shawn Mullins).

Altered Sweet caught my eye initially because a number of independent artists whose work I’ve enjoyed over the past few years contributed to it, including all three members of The Legal Matters, Lindsay Murray of nbtc__dv_250 Gretchen’s Wheel, Lannie Flowers, and Peter McDade of Uncle Green. Having said that, I’ll confess to having been a bit baffled at first about how to fill up the rest of this review, because the natural approach would be to compare these versions of these songs to the originals… and with a handful of exceptions, I’ve never heard the originals.

Going in cold, then, we’ll just stick to what immediately appealed to my ears. Highlights on disc one include thrummy, janglicious opener “Looking At The Sun” (covered by Lisa Mychols); the punchy push and pull of “Where You Get Love” (Andy Reed of The Legal Matters); the rather Neil Finn /  Crowded House feel of “Falling” (Nick Bertling); the appealingly plaintive “Someone To Pull The Trigger” (Chris Richards of The Legal Matters); the frothy, Fountains Of Wayne-ish “Heaven And Earth,” complete with piercing guitar solo (Michael Simmons); the moody “Walk Out” (Gretchen’s Wheel); the fat-guitared traditionalist power-pop of “All Over My Head” (The Well Wishers); and the blurry layered-vocals haze of “Your Sweet Voice” (Pop Co-Op).

Disc two feels spottier to me but still has plenty of moments: the gauzy British Invasion treatment of “We’re The Same” (Stabby Robot); the fizzy joy of “Girlfriend” (Michael Carpenter), full of pleasantly woozy guitar; “Get Older” rearranged as a Brian Wilson ballad (Cokeroque); the fuel-injected guitars of “Behind The Smile” (Nick Piunti) and “Byrdgirl” (Arvidson & Butterflies); the earnest melancholy of “You Don’t Love Me” (Keith Klingensmith of The Legal Matters); and one-man power-pop savant Robyn Gibson’s vintage-1963 take on “I Should Never Have Let You Know.”

One thing’s for certain—the less reverent these covers feel, the more interesting they are. What works best is when the artists take chances; for example, one of Sweet’s better-known singles “Sick Of Myself” is thoroughly transformed here, its deliciously crunchy riffs banished from Simple Friend’s reimagination of the song as a delicate, lilting folk tune, complete with multi-layered vocal harmonies and glockenspiel.

The end result of this generous double-disc package is just what you imagine Futureman Records was shooting for: a considerably greater appreciation for the craftsmanship and honesty of Sweet’s songwriting, and heightened curiosity about many of the artists who cover his work here—to which I can add, an enhanced appreciation for the talents of the contributing artists whose work I was already familiar with. For once, the phrase fits: mission accomplished.

Rating: B+

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© 2018 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Futureman Records, and is used for informational purposes only.