"Take a straight and stronger course"
When the Under the Covers collaboration between power pop veteran Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles fame was announced, there must have been a fair bit of head scratching from fans of one but not necessarily the other. Then you hear their voices together and it makes absolute sense. Hoffs, despite her Paisley Underground roots, was always pure power pop, particularly during The Bangles’ commercially successful 80s period. Matthew Sweet on the other hand, despite never really achieving the crossover hit that his talent deserves, has long held a reputation as a musicians musician that can get the best out of others.
The first volume proved that there was a charming simplicity to the Under the Covers project. A selection of well known tunes from a particular decade / period of music is paid tribute to by way of cover versions, often played as straight power-pop covers by Sweet and Hoffs. It really was as simple as two capable pop musicians recording their versions of great pop songs. Sure, there was always going to be those that would bellyache about them being too close to the originals, but that was to miss the point of the whole project.
Released three years after the first volume, Vol.2 is admittedly more of a mixed bag when compared to its predecessor, with a number of tracks which are the very definition of filler, it still has its moments of brilliance, Of course while the combination of Susanna Hoffs and Matthew Sweet is potent, the execution of the individual song is not always what it should be.
Where they work well, the songs on Under the Covers Vol. 2 can really hit the spot, such as on their full blooded facsimiles of “Second Hand News”, and The Raspberries’ “Go All The Way”, however when some of the songs which really should work misfire, such as “Here Comes My Girl”, and “Gimme Some Truth”, the album does smacks of self-satisfied vanity project. Then there are those songs that you can’t imagine anyone managing to cover with their dignity intact. Carly Simon’s original version of “You’re so Vain” is so definitive, that even as much as Hoffs throws herself into it, she still comes up short. The same goes for Sweet on “All the Young Dudes”, as he simply couldn’t capture the same resigned arsiness in his voice that Ian Hunter managed to nail down. The real surprise though is that those songs that you couldn’t imagine Hoffs and Sweet executing well, are often the best tracks, such as turning the leaden “Bell Bottom Blues” into an oddly enjoyable blissed-out west coast number, a gloriously simple reading of “Willin'” and, incomprehensibly, “I’ve Seen All Good People”. It takes skill to cover Yes, but even more skill to make a Yes song enjoyable.
The kicker is, at over an hour long, Under the Covers Vol. 2 is far too long for its own good, and if the songs that missed the mark were expurgated and the remaining tracks resequenced, it would be a far superior listen, and possibly the strongest album of the series. All it would have taken was Hoffs or Sweet just being a little more ruthless rather than them trying to load up the CD run time in the name of providing value for money.
Under the Covers Vol. 2 is one of those albums that you play in the background when you just want some great pop music that you don’t have to invest massively into to enjoy. Perhaps that’s the point of the Under the Covers series. This is a bunch of great rock songs by two of the massively talented, but all too often overlooked, journeyfolk of popular song. You don’t have to over think this. Just press play on the stereo and enjoy.