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Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs
Under The Covers Vol. 1
Shout! Factory Records

Cover albums, or even cover songs, are always daunting for both musicians and reviewers alike, especially when reimagining pop songs considered classic and sacrosanct. A good cover can do many things - the worst either try to recreate the original or misconstrue it to such a point that it is unflattering and unrecognizable; the best forge new musical landscapes or highlight aspects of the original that influenced later artists. Fortunately, the new Matthew Sweet/Susanna Hoffs collection, Under The Covers, Vol. 1, belongs to the latter category. In fact, the relationship between the songs on Under The Covers, Vol. 1 and their original counterparts is circular, with Sweet and Hoffs highlighting the aspects of '60s pop, rock, folk, and hard rock that spawned the power pop movement and transforming each track with their superb dreamy harmonies and power pop instrumentation to bridge the gap between these seemingly disparate genres.

Beginning with a cover of the Marmalades' "I See the Rain," Sweet and longtime guitarist Richard Lloyd set the pace with their trademark crunchy, yet melodic guitar riffs, while drummer Ric Menck (Velvet Crush) adds a punk-meets-Brit-pop backbeat. The Beatles' "And Your Bird Can Sing" has a roots-rock feel with '60s pop harmonies, while Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" owes more to the Byrds' country-rock version of the song than Dylan's minimalist folk, with the nonpareil Van Dyke Parks contributing delectable, '60s-flavored organ flourishes. Here, Hoffs' dreamy ah-ah-ahs complement Sweet's Tom Petty-esque lead vocals and jangly lead guitar to create a rock song with only minor country tinges. Sweet and Hoffs move into folk-pop territory with their country-rock cover Fairport Convention's "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?" Hoffs wisely does not try to emulate the inimitable Sandy Denny, allowing her own voice to shine.

Sweet and Hoffs recorded two songs from Neil Young and Crazy Horse's stellar debut, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere - the hard rockin' "Cinnamon Girl" and the country-hard rock hybrid title song. Their version of the former highlights both the proto-punk and proto-metal aspects of Young's work - thanks in large part to Menck's driving rhythm and Lloyd's wailing take on Danny Whitten's lead guitar part. The latter becomes a de-countrified power pop that rocks much harder than the original, and yet retains the original melody. The Sweet/Hoffs version of Love's "Alone Again Or" is strikingly similar to the original, save the ethereal lead vocals and the heavier Spanish influences in the lead guitar and trumpet parts, while The Beach Boys' "Warmth of the Sun" features a distorted lead guitar riff that would not be out of place on a Sadies album. Hoffs' vocal take on The Stone Poneys' "Different Drum" rivals that of Linda Ronstadt, but here again Hoffs does not try to sound like her idol. "Different Drum" also features a mellotron and string bridge that is worthy of the Beatles and a rhythm section that pinpoints the connections and co-influences between pop and punk music.

Sweet and Hoffs' take on The Who's "The Kids Are Alright" owes more to The Replacements and Who's Next-era Who than the band's early version of the song, while their retread of The Velvet Underground's "Sunday Morning" is far more melodic than the original, thanks in large part to Hoffs' childlike contralto and Sweet's ambient harmonies. The harpsichord- and piano-driven cover of The Zombies' "Care of Cell #44" finds Hoffs channeling Petula Clark, while string-infused take on The Mamas and the Papas' "Monday, Monday" features a lead vocal from Sweet that rivals Denny Doherty's original in conviction and '60s cool if not vocal strength. "Monday, Monday" also features a Buffalo Springfield-inspired harpsichord-and-guitar reel that is as central to this version of the song as the strings and vocal harmonies. The Left Banke's "She May Call You Up Tonight" features a piano intro straight out of Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" and a fitting baroque string section to offset the three-chord janglepop guitars and simple, yet driving rock rhythm. The final track on Under The Covers, Vol. 1 is a rather straightforward remake of the Bee Gees' "Run to Me" featuring heavy strings and a piano-driven melody. "Run to Me" is the only true duet on Under The Covers, Vol. 1, with Hoffs sounding like, well, Susanna Hoffs and Sweet sounding more than a bit like he's channeling Robin Gibb.

Slightly derivative vocalizations not withstanding, Under The Covers, Vol. 1 is an enchanting combination of old and new, a collection that highlights the seemingly nebulous connection between '60s pop and latter day power pop, punk, and hard rock. A melodic blend of experimentation and tradition, Under The Covers, Vol. 1 serves both as a primer on '60s pop and rock music and an album in its own right.

-Tracy M. Rogers

Track List:
1. I See the Rain
2. And Your Bird Can Sing
3. It's All Over Now, Baby Blue
4. Who Knows Where the Time Goes?
5. Cinnamon Girl
6. Alone Again Or
7. The Warmth of the Sun
8. Different Drum
9. The Kids Are Alright
10. Sunday Morning
11. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
12. Care of Cell #44
13. Monday, Monday
14. She May Call You Up Tonight
15. Run to Me

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