August 11, 1993
Matthew Sweet, Altered Beast (Zoo 1993) -- Altered Beast is the follow-up to Matthew Sweet's giant-selling 1992 release, Girlfriend, and proves that record sales alone will not bring happiness: Matthew seems ill at ease with fame (and its trappings).
Like Girlfriend, Altered Beast features guitars front and center. Matthew has once again enlisted a battery of ace rock guitarists to assist him, including Richard Lloyd, Ivan Julian, and Robert Quine. Quine, who also played lead guitar on Lou Reed's Legendary Hearts (1983) and Live in Italy (1984) is a particularly welcome addition.
All of the songs on Altered Beast feature Matthew on both lead and backing vocals. Matthew sought out Richard Dashut (who produced Fleetwood Mac's Rumours and Tusk) to assist him in the studio, and the result is not surprising -- Altered Beast bears a smooth surface, and is studiously crafted. While the lead guitar always comes through clearly, the backing guitars have been texturized and bent in places to produce a rarified sound.
Also appearing on Altered Beast are Nicky Hopkins (who played with the Beatles and the Stones) and drummer Mick Fleetwood (who needs no introduction). Altered Beast's melodies and arrangements are pop-oriented, but the driving force is guitar and bass, with an occasional fiddle and keyboard thrown in to fill out the sound.
"Time Capsule," my favorite cut on the album, features Beatlesque vocals and chord changes, while songs like "Knowing People" ("I don't like knowing people And I don't like people knowing about me") and "What Do You Know" ("So go on and shoot your mouth off/Like it might kill the silence"), feature jangly melodies that mask darker moods.
Matthew's inner feelings are most clearly revealed on "The Ugly Truth", with its line "You simply cannot hide From the ugly truth". Matthew is obviously enamored of this tune, as two different takes are featured on the album. The first version is more countrified, with a banjo in the background and a Buffalo Springfield flavor, while the second version has a harder feel, ala Neil Young's Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere.
Despite its harmonious exterior, the sub-surface tension on Altered Beast betrays Matthew's underlying malaise. The dissatisfaction and melancholia in the "The Ugly Truth" are self-evident, and wear thin after several plays. Matthew has precious little to complain about, but emerges as a sulky faultfinder, albeit a talented one.
Uneasy is the head that wears the crown. Mr. Sweet finds himself at the head of the pack, but is not sure he likes being there. He should be careful, or he might get his wish.
Lisa Germano, Happiness (Capitol 1993) -- Lisa Germano, the multi-talented fiddle player in John Mellencamp's band, has released a quirky solo album that also shows her unease with the rock 'n roll lifestyle. Unlike Matthew Sweet, Lisa is not whiny -- rather, she is trying to find the keys to her pain. As a result, Happiness is a far more intriguing and listenable project.
Ms. Germano has a throaty vocal style that is reminiscent of Suzanne Vega (whose latest album, 99.9, is a thought-provoking style-bender) and an evocative, almost dead-pan delivery that can be painfully honest at times.
Happiness was produced at Daniel Lanois' French Quarter studio in New Orleans, and draws from a wide range of musical styles, including country reels, Irish jigs, discordant Appalachian melodies, and up-tempo rock numbers. Happiness is far more than a fiddle album -- it's a funky, multi-garbed musical journey.
Ms. Germano is a very bright young lady, but has streaks of doom and gloom that seem inappropriate for her age and abilities. For example, on "You Make Me Want to Wear Dresses", Lisa questions her desire (and need) to lose herself in a relationship.
Lisa's fears and anxieties come most clear in songs like "Bad Attitude," with its line, "You wish you were happy but you're not Ha Ha Ha", and the title cut, in which she sings "Pain and sadness/Are real to me".
Despite its occasionally heavy subject matter, Happiness never bogs down. My favorite cut on the album is a remake of Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots are Made Walkin'", which is dispatched with an almost metal-edged tint. Surprisingly, "These Boots" works extremely well as an angry, foot-stomping number, as Lisa reveals (and revels in) every double entendre in the tune.
Happiness is a fascinating pastiche of musical cultures and personal statements. We can only hope that maturity (and possibly some counselling) will lead to personal happiness for Lisa.
Generation X -- If you're under 35 and moved to Fresno from someplace else, read Generation X by Douglas Coupland. It's short on plot, but long on insight. You might learn something about yourself. Who you are. What makes you tick.
Corporate Arrogance -- In an abrupt reversal, Sears has finally decided to accept credit cards from Visa and Mastercard. After years of futilely trying to turn the Discover card into a profit center, Sears' top brass finally listened to their customers.
Too bad they had to lose their mail order business in the process. Just when mail order is the hottest new consumer trend. No wonder our economy is so depressed. Corporate executives have allowed arrogance and contempt to replace customer service.
-- Randy Krbechek
Copyright (c) Randy Krbechek
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