- The Washington Times - Monday, April 17, 2006

Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs

Under the Covers Vol. 1

Shout! Factory

Matthew Sweet and Susannah Hoffs have teamed up to record “Under the Covers Vol. 1,” an uneven, forgettable collection of covers of 1960s pop hits and B-sides released on the occasion of the reissue of Mr. Sweet’s 1991 classic “Girlfriend.”

Mr. Sweet’s guitar-driven brand of power pop enjoyed favorable press and the occasional stay on the modern-rock charts in the early- to mid-1990s. Susannah Hoffs enjoyed weeks on end atop the pop charts, fronting the Bangles. The neo-garage-rock girl group is best remembered for its Top Ten hits — “Manic Monday,” written by Prince, and “Walk Like an Egyptian,” a 1985 novelty relic from the early days of music video.

Only one track on “Covers” is aggressively unlistenable: The duo’s reinterpretation of Neil Young’s plaintive “Cinnamon Girl” replaces its mournful cast with a peppy insouciance that rings false and, because of its bright, high-energy percussion attack, sounds as if it is being played in double time. Mr. Sweet’s vocals, too, are way off, straining for but not finding Mr. Young’s idiosyncratic timbres.

They do a better job with the title track of the same Neil Young album, “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.” Miss Hoffs takes a bigger share of the vocals here, smoothing out the arrangement. The guitar licks venture afield with twangy authority even as the driving rhythms of the original are preserved.

Miss Hoffs boasts a less influential catalog of original recordings than Mr. Sweet, but on this high-profile karaoke mix, she comes across as much more credible and at ease. Her easygoing vocals retain their independence, while Mr. Sweet apparently can’t resist the temptation to “do” the singers to whom he is paying homage, with especially bad results in the case of the Dylan cover “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”

Miss Hoffs gets raspy and slightly dissolute for a cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning,” while she infuses “Different Drum” (the Michael Nesmith song made famous by Linda Ronstadt as lead singer of the Stone Poneys) with teenage exuberance.

On “Care of Cell #44,” originally by the Zombies, she sings the mash note to a beloved prison inmate with an appropriate mix of optimism and trepidation. Unlike her singing partner, Miss Hoffs doesn’t try to mimic the vocal style of the original but instead looks to the song in search of a mood and a sound.

Mr. Sweet and Miss Hoffs previously collaborated as members of Ming Tea, the house band that backed Mike Myers on-screen in the over-the-top film parody of the frug era, “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.”

There are a few moments of parody here, intentional or not. A version of “Monday, Monday,” for instance, feels especially over the top. Satirical or not, there is always more camp value in the original than in a tongue-in-cheek remake.

Like most cover albums, this collection of do-overs by the duo of Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs is rich in pedigree, but like many, it is an out-of-context trifle that will be enjoyed only fleetingly by fans of the singers and the songs.

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