Tag Archives: Matthew Sweet

Matthew Sweet @ Islington Assembly Hall, 18/12/18

Matthew Sweet had a cold, which was a little unfortunate, but he’d not played in London for a long time (a guy behind us said 20 years, but surely it couldn’t be that long?), so the show had to go on. While he got his disclaimer in early, he actually coped well vocally, and only on one or two songs was his voice noticeably hampered.

His band, made up of long-time drummer Ric Menck, guitarist Jason Victor and bassist Paul Chastain, were as great as you’d hope, and if Victor isn’t quite Richard Lloyd or Robert Quine, he was still damn good, and supplied the sort of pointed, squalling solos that so distinguised Sweet’s work in the early 1990s. The mix was a little off (bass guitar had no definition, at least where I was standing, and, of course, the vocals were too quiet and the cymbals too loud). But seeing as my friend Nick Frater, who was standing in another part of the room, told me that for him the kick/snare mix was poor, which I didn’t feel was the main problem, perhaps the room swallows up different things depending on where you stand.

Sweet has been busy in the last few years, with an album in 2017, Tomorrow Forever, and a release of outtakes, Forever’s Daughter, just dropped. His set contained five songs from the two records, along with one from Sunshine Lies, but otherwise the set was drawn from his classic trilogy of 1990s albums: Girlfriend, Altered Beast and 100% Fun.

Early highlights of the set for me included Byrdgirl, from Sunshine Lies, and Winona, from Girlfriend – a Neil Young-like country-tinged ballad, built on the simplest of chord sequences and rhythms. The original is decorated with gorgeous pedal steel by Greg Leisz, but Jason Victor did a great job on lead guitar of capturing the weeping feel of Leisz’s playing.

Divine Intervention followed and was appreciatively received, but I was more taken with Sweet’s reading of Someone to Pull the Trigger from Altered Beast. While on record the harmonies and sparkling guitars can sometimes sweeten songs that are crushingly despondent, in live performance the song had a rawness that was very affecting.

We’re the Same, from 100% Fun, was the moment where Sweet’s cold got the better of him vocally. The high notes on the recording are a long way up, so Sweet’s decision to sing the chorus an octave down and have Chastain and Victor cover the high parts was a wise one, but even so Sweet struggled with the high notes. It did hamper the song a bit, but colds are colds. We were lucky he was able to sing at all.

You Don’t Love Me, Girlfriend‘s darkest moment, was a little uncomfortable. The recording smoothed some of the song’s rough edges off with piano and pedal steel. In live performance by a four-piece band, it felt much starker, and as the song neared its end and Sweet sang ad libs while Victor played a molten Neil Young-like solo, it was almost too raw.

New song I Belong To You lightened the mood a bit, but what really got everyone up again was a three-song run of early-’90s classics: Girlfriend, I’ve Been Waiting and Sick of Myself, which was absolutely great. I’m a huge fan of the latter song, and have written about it before, so it was a treat to see Sweet and Ric Menck pound out that deathless guitar-and-drum riff.

After Sick of Myself, rather than walk off, Sweet played feedback and divebombed his guitar’s tremolo arm for several minutes, before cueing the band (who did walk off for a while) into The Searcher from Tomorrow Forever.

Maybe it’s because Sick of Myself was an unimprovable end to the show, or maybe I was a bit grumpy because I’m about 15 years past the point of ever wanting to hear another electric guitarist attempt to deafen everyone with feedback (it’s not 1993 anymore and my ears don’t need the unnecessary beating*), but the encore fell a little flat to me. The Searcher was not a song many in the audience knew, and while Evangeline was, and it was inevitable that Sweet would play it, I’d have rather it had been folded into the main set and there had been no encore.

All in all, though, it was a really good gig. At times I missed a little of the light and shade of the recorded arrangements, and felt that if Sweet had swapped his semi-distorted electric for an acoustic on a few songs, it would have changed things up in a nice way, but there’s simply no arguing with songs as good as Sweet’s, or a band as good.

May he come back again, a little sooner next time.

*For the same reason, the next person who wolf-whistles two inches from my earhole had better run.

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Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 3: Sick of Myself – Matthew Sweet

Of all the supporting players on Matthew Sweet’s 1990 album Girlfriend, it’s his lead guitarists who drew all the attention. Small wonder, when the guitarists in question were Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine. That’s some serious fretboard power. On a record that’s somewhat sonically unsatisfying (small-sounding, excessively dry, underwhelming low end), Lloyd and Quine provide most of the excitement and most of the rock.

By the time Sweet made 100% Fun in 1995, the grunge wave had crested and receded, but his sound was still saturated with alt.rock sonic signifiers (similar things happened to the Posies and Aimee Mann in the same period). Compared to Girlfriend, 100% Fun sounds like it’s been pumped up with steroids. Sweet’s Epiphone semi-acoustic grunts and growls rather than chimes, and Ric Menck’s drums are an enormous foreground presence rather than a discreet tapping from somewhere at the back (or worse, the side) of the mix.

Good rock music is all about the energy and power provided by the drums, and it’s Menck who steals the show on album opener Sick of Myself, despite the best efforts of Television’s Lloyd and his squalling Fender. Menck smashes his crash cymbals in the intro and choruses, plays big smacking hi-hat quarter notes in the verses and generally pounds on his snare drum like it’s done him a personal injury. There’s no showiness to any of it. He’s just making as big a noise as possible. He sounds like he’s having a ball doing it. According to Sweet, when they tracked what became Sick of Myself, he hadn’t really written the vocal parts other than the hook line in the chorus, and it was how great the drums and rhythm guitar track sounded together that inspired him to finish the piece and make it into a proper song.

Aiding and abetting him were producer Brendan O’Brien and O’Brien’s frequent partner in crime, tracking engineer Nick DiDia, who cooked up a particularly great drum sound for the album. The snare is absolutely huge (it sounds very wide, if that makes sense – presumably from just the right blend of close snare mike and stereo rooms, but I’m taking a shot on that. Could be wrong), and if the toms are comparatively small, they don’t really play a huge part in the performance; if O’Brien privileged the snare when mixing, he made absolutely the right call. It’s the crucial instrument in the mix. It’s what supplied the song with its attitude. Fittingly, the guy playing it sounded like he was having 100% fun.

sweet casino
Sweet shills for Epiphone  (1996) – and who among us would turn down a free Casino or two?

When did the eighties become the eighties? or, transition periods in mix fashion

I had an interesting conversation with Yo Zushi the other night about fashion in music production and mix.

Both of us have a soft spot for Boz Scaggs and his super-cool ultra-smooth blue-eyed soul, and I remarked on Middle Man being one of the best-sounding records I could think of. For all its song-for-song quality, Scaggs’s masterpiece, Silk Degrees, doesn’t have the drum sound that graces Middle Man cuts like JoJo. It’s precise, it’s powerful, and it seems to me to retain far more of the sound you hear when you’re seated on the drum stool

Middle Man, released in 1980, was recorded at the back end of 1979, using old-school analogue technology. By then, recording and mix engineers had had a few years to become familiar with the technology of 24-track analogue, learn how to compensate for the reduced track width caused by cramming that many tracks into two inches of tapes, discover ways to warm up the relatively sterile transistor-based desks that were now the rule rather than the exception, and begin to derive the benefits of new automation technology, which allowed for more precise mixing, particularly of vocals (automation allows you to program your fader moves in advance, rather than having to do them on the fly).

So Middle Man, produced by Bill Schnee (who’d engineered Steely Dan’s Aja three years before) came out during a sort of period of grace. It was also a period where fashions were changing. The tight, dry West Coast sound of Middle Man was falling out of favour, especially in New York and in the UK: Jimmy Iovine (an East Coast guy through and through, even when he was working in LA) had already made Darkness on the Edge on Town (at the Record Plant New York) and Damn the Torpedoes (at Sound City in Van Nuys), and soon he’d apply that same absurd cannonball-hits-crash-mat drum sound to Stevie Nicks’s Bella Donna. In the UK, meanwhile, Hugh Padgham had stumbled across the gated reverb effect while recording Peter Gabriel’s third solo album. In 1981 Phil Collins would unleash his gated mega drums on In the Air Tonight and it would be all over for the Californian aesthetic.

Except, no. I wouldn’t.

Things aren’t that neat. There were still plenty of records made in the first few years of the 1980s with the dead sound associated with the 1970s (think of something like Michael McDonald’s 1982 hit album If That’s What it Takes, which sonically speaking could have been made the same year as Aja), and a lot of the things we think of as being key to the eighties sound were invented so late in the 1970s or so early in the 1980s that their true impact wasn’t felt until the decade was well underway: the Linn drum machine, the Fairlight CMI, the Emulator, the Synclavier, digital reverb units like the Lexicon 224 and so on.

The same was true at the start of the 1990s. Sure, Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, with its startlingly bone-dry sound, may have pointed to the way things were going and acted as a necessary corrective to the never-ending decays on vocals and snare drums that were so prevalent at the arse end of the eighties. Sure, Bob Clearmountain’s mixes were coming back down to earth (by 1993 he’d be doing his best ever work on Crowded House’s Together Alone) after his big bam booming period mixing Hall & Oates, Huey Lewis and Bryan Adams. And sure Andy Wallace’s Nevermind mix was, despite its use of reverb samples, far drier than it could have been in someone else’s hands. But as late as 1993, Big Head Todd and the Monsters could have a platinum record with an album that deployed extremely prominent gated reverb on the drums* That’s to say nothing of Brendan O’Brien seemingly tracking Pearl Jam’s Ten in a cave**.

At some point a trend gets overdone and a small vanguard starts going the other way to distinguish themselves from the herd. The question is, in our own era, who’s going to do it and what’s going to change?

big head todd
Promo shot, circa Sister Sweetly: Todd Park Mohr, Brian Nevin, Rob Squires

*If you’re not American – hell, if you weren’t living in the Mountain States in the early 1990s – you may not be aware of Big Head Todd and the Monsters. Let me assure you, then, that this was not a case of a behind-the-times band from the boondocks getting lucky: Sister Sweetly was produced and mixed by Prince sideman David Z at the Purple One’s own Paisley Park studio. The record, for whatever reason, just completely ignored the production trends of the preceding two years or so, and must have sounded almost laughably old-fashioned the moment it was released. Nonetheless it’s a decent record and it sold a million in the US.

**The Pearl Jam guys disliked the mix enough that the 2009 re-release included a remix of the whole album. It’s noticeably drier.