Get a Whiff of Matthew Sweet's Smell of Excess

Sweet: Room to rock wanted
Henry Diltz

Not Sick of Himself Yet
Get a whiff of Matthew Sweet's smell of excess

"I need a room to rock in," demands Matthew Sweet, two songs into his new album. True to that sentiment, much of Sunshine Lies is extroverted, upbeat and wall-to-wall with the veteran songwriter's signature in-your-face guitar solos. In fact, the working title for the record—his 10th and easily his best in years—was Rock Bottom, proof he was ready to embrace his inner sonic god after being such a team player in the mellow super-group the Thorns.

"It was a reaction to this acoustic stuff that was really poised," says Sweet. "But it didn't feel done to me." After working on a handful of other projects, he returned to the album and decided to couch some of the overt rock-ness. (The ditched tracks may find new life as an EP, and the album's vinyl release has two bonus tracks, one titled "Badass.") Sweet rounded out the remaining material with softer, more psychedelic tunes, resulting in a moody, retro-ish voyage that's as much indebted to the Who as it is to Donovan.

It's no coincidence that one of Sweet's projects before (re)shaping Sunshine Lies was Under the Covers Vol. 1, a nostalgic collection of '60s covers with the Bangles' Susanna Hoffs. However, 43-year-old Sweet came around to classic '60s rock only after digging deeply into prog, new wave and punk in his teen years. It's fitting, then, that the next volume of Under the Covers will tackle the '70s—and be a double album to boot.

Sweet has certainly never minded displaying his influences; he's tackled everyone from the Carpenters to Big Star to Tom Petty on tribute records, and he long ago snagged Television guitarist Richard Lloyd for his band, which also includes the Velvet Crush's Ric Menck and prolific session musician Greg Leisz.

One of the best songs on Sunshine Lies is even called "Byrdgirl." But Sweet says it's not just a nod to the band who pioneered the sunny guitar jangle he's plied throughout his 20-plus-year career. It's also inspired by Big Star, whose Alex Chilton enjoyed tweaking the spelling of song titles such as "September Gurls." Sweet, who over the years has played with everyone from the Jayhawks and Van Dyke Parks to Michael Stipe and Mike Myers (yes, that Mike Myers), is fine with the swirling mass of musical influences surrounding him.

"All the influences we've talked about are there for everyone," he says. "It's all mixed up, and at the same time, nothing is different from what came before it, unless there's feeling behind it." He cites such groundbreaking singles as the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever" and Prince's "Kiss" as golden eggs of adventurous songwriting, but he admits that no matter how offbeat and barrier-pushing he aspires to be, there's always a solid pop core to everything he does. Case in point: Sweet's biggest hit, 1995's happily acidic "Sick of Myself."

"I'd like to experiment more," he says. "But songs kind of pop out of me as songs. It's hard to take things and have them be like modern art and still feel like something, just for me." At the same time, he continues, "I've always loved stuff to be kind of psychedelic. Lately, I don't do it overtly, but just let it come out. I'm always trying to write music that's off-the-cuff and as out of my subconscious as possible."

That approach is part of what makes Sunshine Lies feel so dreamy and organic, especially when Sweet leaves the tape running on tunes such as "Feel Fear," a wistful ballad that ends with a dangling, tipsy piano melody. It's a little trick he has used often, especially on his beloved 1991 opus, Girlfriend.

"That's not planned," he explains. "It's just junk. I like how that part gets off-key and really dissolves. It reminds me of the way feelings feel in life. That song's about fear, so it felt appropriate for it to fall part. I always either feel like I'm falling part, or that I'm going to make it."

Which brings us back to Sunshine Lies' split personality and departure from Sweet's original intentions when he began work on it as Rock Bottom. Maybe it's just not possible for Sweet to make a record that's all uptempo or downbeat, only happy or only sad. His previous album, the stately and acoustic Living Things, was still imbued with what Sweet admits is "wacky" humor, and despite its title, 1995's 100% Fun is as dark and noisy as it is catchy and resilient.

So goes Sunshine Lies. "I know the rock isn't the heaviest," he admits, "but the attitude is more Jekyll/Hyde." That should come as no surprise to Sweet or his fans, who are currently being treated to one of the strongest albums of his reliably restless career.

Matthew Sweet and the Fallen Stars perform at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 496-8930; Wed., 8 p.m. $18.

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