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We’ve Been Waiting

Matthew Sweet
Living Things (Superdeformed/RCAM)
Kimi ga Suki * Raifu (Superdeformed/RCAM)

After taking some time away from his solo career to take part in the Thorns (a side project featuring fellow singer-songwriters Pete Droge and Shawn Mullins), Matthew Sweet has returned to form with the near-simultaneous release of two new albums, his first since 1999’s In Reverse. Although both albums were written and recorded rather quickly, the result is some of Sweet’s best material in years.

Kimi ga Suki * Raifu (it gets easier, honest) originally was released last year in Japan as a “love letter” to his die-hard fan base there. To be bold, it’s Sweet’s best full-length collection since his breakthrough, Girlfriend. Credit this to a controlled setting in which Sweet handles the bass and many of the guitars himself, while longtime counterpart Ric Menck returns to play drums. Guitar leads are divvied up between session player Greg Leisz and Television cofounder Richard Lloyd, all of which adds to the old-school vibe—in tandem with the late Robert Quine, Lloyd’s herky-jerky soloing was a defining characteristic of Sweet’s music a decade ago, and it’s refreshing to hear the old lineup back together.

The songs on Kimi are uniformly excellent, too. Sweet reportedly wrote and recorded these 12 songs over the course of one week. If that’s true, I want what he’s having. The writing on “The Ocean In-Between” and “Love Is Gone” is as airtight as a brand-new pickle jar, and the performances are spontaneous and exciting throughout.

Living Things is a more, shall we say, “experimental” effort that finds Sweet calling on renowned pop-eccentric (and Sweet pal) Van Dyke Parks for keyboards on all but two of the album’s 11 tracks. Fitting with the Parks’ aesthetic, there’s a whimsical, celebratory air to these recordings. The arrangements are looser, less refined, and the electric guitars are all but sidelined. Parks’ piano tracks often sound like first takes, a good number of parts are rushed, and the assortment of supporting players (Menck, Leisz, bassist Tony Marsico, and others) lend to the “Hey guys, let’s go make ourselves a record” feel.

In keeping with the last several Sweet releases, there are weak spots on Living Things: “Cats vs. Dogs” is lyrically light and musically lighter, “Tomorrow” closes the album on its lowest note, and the unusual instrumental adornments—steel drums on “The Big Cats of Shambala,” blues harmonica on “I Saw Red”—take a while to settle in. But the high points, which include the propulsive “Dandelion” and hallmark Sweet ballad “You’re Not Sorry,” find one of the great pop songwriters of our time back at the top of his game.

—John Brodeur

Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks

Selected Shorts (Surfdog)

The century change brought surprising new vigor to the languishing career of Dan Hicks. Beatin’ the Heat offered irrefutable evidence of his subtle powers. The influence from his early-’70s albums can be heard in Tom Waits, Rickie Lee Jones and even Elvis Costello. His early-’70s albums and performances with His Hot Licks are often incorrectly celebrated merely for their patina of quaint evocations of days gone by. But Hicks is no nostalgia merchant. He has drawn from western swing, small-combo jazz, and Tin Pan Alley, but has done so without putting any of it behind museum glass. From his acerbic wit to the kickass players, the stuff is simply good, no matter what decade it’s spilling into.

Selected Shorts offers 10 new originals and a trio of covers. “C’mon-a-My house” and “I’ll See You in My Dreams” are so perfectly suited to Hicks that it’s remarkable he didn’t record them 30 years ago. Guests include Willie Nelson, Jimmy Buffet, Van Dyke Parks and erstwhile Butthole Surfer Gibby Haynes, but the balance is never unduly tipped in their direction—they’re on board to ride along with Dan! Original Hot Lick violinist Sid Page is on board, and the bassist this time is Dylan’s longtime sideman Tony Garnier. Richly recorded, his string bass is a wonderful whooshing bottom, moving with the grace of a rotund vaudevillian sashaying across a stage.

—David Greenberger

The Minus 5

At the Organ (Yep Roc)

Here we have an EP in its full glory. Clocking in at just under 20 minutes, At the Organ comes galloping out the gate and fully describes Scott McCaughey’s always-unfolding powers. The Minus 5’s shifting personnel base finds him teamed up with Wilco, with whom he created the delightfully titled Down With Wilco last year. In a sort of inverse of his earlier band, Young Fresh Fellows, the Minus 5 exist as a fully rocking studio enterprise that can spring to life in performance on rare occasions as well. “One More Bottle to Go” is the sound of the recording process itself having a perfect and pronounced effect on the final results, at the same time packing a nicely centered wallop. “The Town that Lost Its Groove Supply” is a high-octane rocker given that magical extra hook with its undercurrent of melancholy (the secret weapon of many a great chest pounder). From punches in the stomach to all-night parties, the disparate elements that wiggle through these seven songs reward repeated listenings with head-turning surprises and all manner of alluring satisfaction.

 

—David Greenberger


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