Tag Archives: post-grunge

Someone to Pull the Trigger – Matthew Sweet

Matthew Sweet’s devotion to his song structures and chord sequences – should the solo come before or after the middle eight? What’s the perfect secondary dominant chord to enliven the verse progression? – sometimes sounds like the work of a guy desperately using craft to keep darkness at bay.

While this tendency is present on Girlfriend, it becomes more marked on the follow-up, 1993’s Altered Beast. Sweet named the record after the late 1980s arcade game instantly familiar to kids of that era (like me!) as the game that was bundled with the first version of the Sega Genesis (or Mega Drive as it was known outside the US) until the world-conquering success of Sonic the Hedgehog gave Sega a plausible rival to Mario and Luigi at last. The game – both laughably basic and in its final level infuriatingly difficult. Damn boxing goat warriors – sees you playing as a Greek warrior resurrected by Zeus to rescue the kidnapped Athena (quite why a goddess needs a mortal’s help is not explained. Because patriarchy, I guess). Sweet picked the title because, in his words, “you have to find these little power-up things, and when you eat them you become the Altered Beast, this other creature that’s really powerful and violent.”

So it’s a record about carrying the capacity for darkness inside you – how we cover it up and how it manifests itself anyway. Musically, it’s all over the map compared to Girlfriend, the heavier and more fuzzed-out 100% Fun and the Beach Boys-ish late 1990s duo, Blue Sky on Mars and In Reverse. Sweet tapped producer Richard Dashut, a veteran of Fleetwood Mac’s classic albums, as well as a troupe of musicians from the 1960s and ’70s: Mick Fleetwood, Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello) and Big Star’s Jody Stephens, who play drums on a track or two each; Byron Berline, who’d played with the Byrds and the Band, who plays fiddle on the country-rock Time Capsule, and the great Greg Leisz, who’s played with just about everyone, on pedal steel. This intriguingly multi-generational band was completed by Sweet’s three regular lead guitarists, Ivan Julian, Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine, all veterans of late 1970s punk bands, all cast for their virtuosity and their ability to subvert Sweet’s classicism with sheer squalling noise when the moment demands.

Lyrically, the songs are frequently despairing, with the album’s prettiest song being the darkest. I’ve tried constructing readings of Someone to Pull the Trigger where the song isn’t simply a plea for someone to put the singer out of his misery (in which pulling the trigger is a way of saying “commit to doing something”), but ultimately the text doesn’t support them, and neither does Sweet’s vocal performance. He sounds lost, devoid of hope.

This song and the gorgeous Reaching Out, with Fleetwood on peerless form on drums, are the album’s sad, desperate heart. The more I listen to Sweet’s music, the more I hear the darkness below the Beatlesque chord changes, sunny harmonies and the goofy pop-culture references (in 2020, a record called Altered Beast may as well be called Pong). The clarity, as Sweet puts it, is chilling.

Sparklehorse – Good Morning Spider; or less hi, more fi, part 1

The way country people kind of, being so isolated, they have to kind of improvise with things they have access to. I always thought that was a really admirable trait of country people, you know. I think that’s why a lot of music seems really boring and sterile to me now because a lot of it’s just, seems like most of its being made in LA or New York, or Seattle or whatever. And you have, you know, a guy who’s the engineer, and that’s his job, or a producer and his job is a lot of times to stand over the musicians and say – like standing over a painting and saying, you know, ‘Use green now!’ And one good thing about owning your own studio is that you’re not on the clock and you can experiment all you want, so this record was mostly done at home in Static King, alone, because I bought my own little baby studio.

Mark Linkous is Sparklehorse, Lotje Ijzermans, Lola da Musica, VPRO, 1998

Mark Linkous in 1998 was a man convinced of the upsides of home recording. His first album, Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot, had been partly recorded at his own Static King studio in Virginia, but Dennis Herring had been on board as a producer and much of the work on the record was done at Richmond’s Sound of Music and Seattle’s Bad Animals, owned by Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart (and a proper A-list studio in which virtually every major 1990s alt. rock band had logged time). The above quote makes it clear that working in this way, with Herring at least, was not an entirely happy experience for Linkous. We can reasonably infer he didn’t like taking outside direction from a producer, and he comes right out and says he didn’t like working to an externally enforced schedule. Maybe it’s going too far to suggest he was unhappy with the way his record had sounded, but nonetheless Good Morning Spider, Linkous’ second album as Sparklehorse, was entirely recorded at his own studio, which by now was a sixteen-track facility equipped with an arsenal of old, clapped-out and discarded equipment: organs, keyboards, samplers, drum machines, intercoms from a dentist’s office and a CB-radio microphone. Not lo-fi, in the hiss-ridden-Portastudio sense, but certainly not state of the art by the standards of the late nineties, and more than a little eccentric in equipment choices. Image
Sparklehorse (Mark Linkous)

A cover I recorded of Happy Man, the centrepiece track of Good Morning Spider: