Joey Sweeney is one of the great pop troubadours
of this fresh new century. Refreshingly free of preconceived
notions of what his Philadelphia-based band should sound like,
Sweeney leads The Trouble With Sweeney
through a maze of pop genres with remarkable confidence
and originality. The Trouble’s newest record, Play Karen
And Others, continues the trend set by their previous
two records, showcasing Sweeney’s insightful and self-effacing
songwriting and the Trouble’s solid, versatile musicianship.
Each of the mere seven songs on the EP is a gem in its own
PKAO, as the Trouble are calling the new record, opens
with "Karen", one of Sweeney’s signature character
studies. The song lopes along with a groove reminiscent of
the Sesame Street theme, or "Can I Get A Witness",
punctuated by some surprising glockenspiel and the beautiful
flute playing of Erica J. Pennella. This track, like
most of the songs on this EP, is a true sing-a-long, and the
melody sticks with you long after the EP is over. The poppy
groove of the tune serves notice that the Trouble will not
be pigeonholed (as they often are) in the alternative country
bin. If you were expecting Ryan Adams, don’t give up
on this record just yet. It’s a whole different kind of good.
The narrator of this particular vignette is a rather pathetic
museum shop clerk, desperate to catch the attention of his
paramour, Karen. Despite the rather unexceptional circumstances
of his life, he knows he’s cut out for something more than
this, and is determined, in his way, to figure something
out about love. At the song’s bridge, we find our hero embracing
his ignorance by shouting a rather awkward question to anyone
who’ll listen: Could anyone up in here detect love?
I don’t think Karen came running into his arms after that.
The first of the "others" is "Most Of It’s
Mine", a swinging, raucous number in the spirit of the
Replacements. Elk City’s Ray Ketchem,
who produced the Trouble on this outing, does an excellent
job of capturing the sound of another era on this track. Again,
the stars of the show are Sweeney’s skillfully rendered characters,
including a woman who wears Spanish boots shaped like Italy.
This is followed by a banjo-driven, downbeat tune. "Lovers
Get Results" is Sweeney melancholia at its finest, and
an excellent example of why the Trouble often gets mislabeled
as alt-country. Sometimes, events in the world and in our
lives cause us to wonder whether anything will ever be the
same. Our beloved narrator questions whether anything is like
it used to be. Do birds really still fly south for the winter?
Do lovers still get results from the things they say to each
other? Well, like Mark Eitzel says, if you have
The downbeat vibe continues with the sweet and simple "Come
Home". The haunting, small-town atmosphere that the Trouble
evokes so effectively on their first EP returns here. This
is the kind of song that makes you want to cry, even if you’re
not really listening to the lyrics. But before you drop another
tear in your beer, lift your head and turn that frown upside
down for "Oh! It’s Mortifying!" another rip-roaring
romp and, by far, the loudest track on the EP. Again, Ketchem’s
touch at the boards and in the arrangements expertly suggests
classic mid-80s rock. Sweeney’s wailing harmonica clinches
the deal. And check out that snare sound. It doesn’t get any
"Waiting For Gary" is a slightly shocking track,
and I’m still trying to work out how it fits into this little
EP. Mostly, it’s a pretty little instrumental with wonderfully
intricate and graceful interplay between guitar and flute.
On top of that, however, is the sound of fingers tippity-tapping
on a computer keyboard, and the beautiful voice of Kathleen
Carroll, reading from the work of André
Gide, in its original French. Perhaps if I were more
proficient in French, I would better understand the place
of this piece within the very snug confines of a seven-song
EP. As is, however, I’m having a hard time seeing this admittedly
beautiful piece as more than filler.
The album closer is a somber cover of the Simon And Garfunkel
song, "The Only Living Boy In New York". The vocals
in the verses and refrain barely rise above a plaintive whisper,
and then release themselves cathartically each time the chorus
comes back around. Sweeney’s tastefully mournful harmonica
steps in, weeping softly to itself at first, then builds up
to a doleful wail. The effect is reminiscent of Neil
Young (seems you can’t write a Trouble review without
invoking the master). The Trouble’s faithful and sincere reinterpretation
gives this song, now more than 30 years old, new life and
relevance for a post-911 world.
That’s a lot of words about a little record, but that’s only
because this one is worth it. Pay attention to this record
and you just might learn something. If you’re not sure after
the first listen, I recommend two more listens, all the way
through. Once you get it —and you will— you won’t want to
let it go.
- Eryc Eyl
- Most Of It's Mine
- Lovers Get Results
- Come Home
- Oh! It's Mortifying!
- Waiting For Gary
- The Only Living Boy In New York
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