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Thursday, May 4, 2006 05:11 am

No reinvention, no imitation

Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs offer familiar favorites, brilliant obscurities

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Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs Under the Covers, Vol. 1 (Shout! Factory)

Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs
Under the Covers, Vol. 1
(Shout! Factory)

When it comes to covers, there are two schools of thought. Adherents of the first try to re-create the original song as closely as possible, which is pointless in theory yet rather lucrative in practice (could a gazillion tribute bands be wrong?). Those in the opposing camp try to reinvent the source material, sometimes transforming it beyond recognition. Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs avoid either extreme. The 15 duets on Under the Covers, Vol. 1, the power-pop/alt-rock idols’ debut as a duo, are neither carbon copies nor radical deconstructions of the originals. Sweet and Hoffs love the music they cover too much to risk messing it up, and their unflagging reverence for their influences is obvious (in your face, Harold Bloom!). Sure, there are differences here and there, some of them significant. Hoffs’ irresistible warble (imagine the way a goat might bleat if you crossed it with an angel and gave it perfect pitch) bears no resemblance to Nico’s Teutonic drone, which makes this interpretation of “Sunday Morning” perkier and more melodic than the Velvet Underground original. With its ringing guitars and bright harmonies, Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” invokes the Byrds’ famous version, only with girly ah-ah-ahs and killer organ (courtesy of Van Dyke Parks). The pair inject the Who’s “The Kids Are Alright” with a bit more reckless élan, and the Beach Boys’ “The Warmth of the Sun” is shot through with distorted guitar licks that subtly undercut the sugary vocal harmonies. A nice mix of familiar favorites and brilliant obscurities, the album also features stellar renditions of songs by Neil Young and Crazy Horse (two of ’em, both from the same album!), the Zombies, the Marmalade, the Stone Poneys, the Left Banke, Love, Fairport Convention, and (of course) the Beatles. If it weren’t for the final track, a glorious version of the Bee Gees’ 1971 ballad “Run to Me,” Under the Covers, Vol. 1 might just as easily have been titled Why the 1960s Was the Best Decade for Pop Music, Period. Then again, the next installment, volume 2 of what we can only hope is a very long series, reportedly pays tribute to the 1970s, and, chances are, it will be every bit as fabulous.

Sparks
Hello Young Lovers
(In the Red)

Ron and Russell Mael have been making records as Sparks for 35 years now, and they’re as deliciously goofy as ever. Hello Young Lovers, the brothers’ 20th album, continues in the High Dork Baroque vein of their previous full-length, 2002’s Lil’ Beethoven: lots of airless keyboard vamps, operatic vocals (think Freddy Mercury, only sillier), insane MIDI orchestration, glam-metal riffage, and lyrics that are simultaneously stupid and sublime. The opening cut, “Dick Around,” a six-and-a-half-minute metasuite, pretty much says it all: “When the leaves are green and the leaves are brown/All I do now is dick around.” “Metaphor,” another perfect fusion of style and substance, is a long list of metaphors about metaphors (“a metaphor is a breath of fresh air”) that culminates in a ludicrously catchy chorus-cum-cheerleader chant: “Chicks dig, dig, D-I-G dig, dig metaphors.” Other songs deal with sexual jealousy, the allure of perfume-free women, the nonexistence of alien life forms, and cats in need of rescue by firemen. The absolute highlight, though, is the mock-canon “(Baby, Baby) Can I Invade Your Country,” which appropriates the lyrics to the national anthem and turns them into a hysterical come-on. I’m pretty sure it’s an anti-war allegory, but rest assured that it’s not coming to a protest near you anytime soon.  
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