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The Trouble With Sweeney
Play Karen And Others
Basement Life Records

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 unexpected way.

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 to ask…

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 hollower.

"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

Track Listing:

  1. Karen
  2. Most Of It's Mine
  3. Lovers Get Results
  4. Come Home
  5. Oh! It's Mortifying!
  6. Waiting For Gary
  7. The Only Living Boy In New York

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