As big a fan of “High Fidelity” as one can be, I’ve always been too much of a completist to settle for the “top five” of anything, especially desert island discs. Didn’t the invention of the digital media player kind of put the lie to the idea that you’d ever get stuck alone with only your ten favorite albums of all time, anyway? That said, I am always impressed when a rock critic or music fan lists Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend among their favorite rock albums. We all have our favorite list of underappreciated artists, but is there a better example of a great power pop rock recording by an artist who isn’t a household name? I don’t think so.
Sweet hasn’t chosen to dwell in quietly in obscurity on purpose, he was prolific and quite noisy throughout the 90’s. In addition to Girlfriend he released Altered Beast, 100% Fun and a few more fine collections, then in the early 2000’s was paired up with Sean Mullins and Pete Droge in the failed “super-group,” The Thorns. He’s continued to churn out solo recordings, and teamed up with Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs for three great volumes of “Under The Covers,” fun tribute takes on the best pop songs from the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s respectively. In 2017, Sweet released the indie album, Tomorrow Forever, fully fan-funded via Kickstarter, and then followed it the next year with Tomorrow’s Daughter.
On this newest recording, Catspaw, Sweet has taken his independent streak to the next level, playing all the instruments on the album except for the drums, provided by long-time associate Ric Menck. And the key to the success, is the way Sweet has developed as a lead guitarist, delivering the kind of incendiary solos that he relied on guitar aces Richard Lloyd (Television) and Robert Quine (Lou Reed) to play on his earlier albums. Here, he’s captured their amped up tones, and bold improvisational vision, and made it all his own. No small feat that.
Adding lead guitar to his bag of tricks, Sweet has not neglected his other strengths, producing edgy, hard rock chops with sweet, power pop melodic hooks, rich in 60’s and 70’s classic rock influences. There’s no doubt, Sweet loves those big, bold power chords that defined bands like Crazy Horse, Big Star, or the Smithereens covering AC/DC, but never neglect to include those memorable pop song melodic hooks, which are 12 for 12 on Catspaw. If there’s one complaint, it’s that so many of these tracks fall into a solid mid-tempo rhythm that makes some of the songs run together toward the second side. But Sweet’s smart, songcraft on tracks like “At A Loss” and “No Surprise” come to the rescue.
Here on his 15th solo album, Matthew Sweet has still not worn out his welcome, even though he tends to remain true to the pop rock muse that brought him to the game. Catspaw is another in a long line of his quality songcraft, that not only rocks hard, but brings those catchy melodies that keep things fresh and fun. Add to that, Sweet’s new guitar prowess, and you continue to have a winning combination.
Key Tracks: “Give A Little” / “Challenge The Gods” / “Blown Away”
Artists With Similar Fire: The Smithereens / Jellyfish / The dB’s
– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb