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Sweet Magic

Matthew Sweet mixes past and present into tunes with taste

Matthew Sweet was probably poking some sort of fun at his own bad self when, in 1993, he led listeners into Altered Beast -- his first release after the breakthrough college radio success of Girlfriend -- with a song titled "Dinosaur Act." Echoplexed guitars roared and crunched and squealed through the ascending chords of a ready-built rock anthem while Sweet snarled into the chorus, "I'm coming back / with my dinosaur act / I still remember baby / what we both lack."

Sweet's "dinosaur act" appeared to have been a reference to the semi-flattering pigeonhole critics had put him into after Girlfriend -- the pigeonhole of a melodic, fair-haired Lenny Kravitz, looting the vault of classic rock and returning to the post-punk marketplace in a trench coat lined with ripped-off licks and anachronistically pretty vocal harmonies.

If I'm reading "Dinosaur Act" correctly, it also serves as evidence that corn-fed Nebraskan Sweet is, whatever else he may be, a reasonably modest fellow. In actuality, he's less dinosaur act than missing link, tying the threads of Beatle-esque pop, perpetually lovelorn sentiment and punk-rock guitar fury into tight, colorful little knots that burrow into your brain and clog arteries, cutting oxygen and causing the afflicted to whistle and skip like giddy idiots. That's been my reaction, anyway. A listener with too little patience and an over-developed intolerance for rock familiarity might well dismiss Sweet's candy-coated gems -- the voice of a Beach Boy hinged to the stomp of Neil Young -- as stolen goods. But anyone who's not immediately put off by identifiable melody will spend weeks with Sweet's songs camped out in his head (and here I'm assuming the audience for so many tunes about lost and future girlfriends must be primarily male, but I'm sappy that way). You hum them in the shower. You hum them out of the shower. You self-destruct perfectly good relationships just for the sake of getting closer to the heart of the songs. You can make a good argument that the 30-year-old Sweet is the best songwriter (within the dying art of love songs, anyhow) of his generation, Evan Dando be damned.

Sweet was all of 18 when, 12 years ago, he bailed out of the Husker state for what was then the happening Athens, Georgia, music scene. It took him two years to land a deal with Columbia and move to New York, where in 1986 he released Inside, an album that not only announced the presence of a new and very catchy pop songwriter, but also was filled with high-tech trickery and -- insincerity of insincerities -- drum machine backing tracks. Critics liked it, but the CD buying audience reacted with a universal shrug of indifference; Sweet could have moved more product selling Gerber jars full of his own crap. So he jumped labels to A&M and in 1989 ran Earth up the flagpole to much the same disheartening response.

At that point -- and better late than never -- Sweet discovered Neil Young and Jimi Hendrix, and decided that what he really wanted to make, after the overly precious toe-dippings of his first two releases, was what he described at the time as "a really raw, totally blatant, in-your-face kind of record."

Girlfriend was that record, a passive-aggressive slab of romantic angst egged on by the disintegration of Sweet's first marriage, an unfortunately timed new love and, in a label shakeup, Sweet's own abrupt dismissal from A&M. After a year of nail-biting, Zoo Entertainment finally picked up the album, and Sweet's fledgling career went over the top.

What made Girlfriend shine, aside from the immediacy of Sweet's autobiographical pining, was the recruitment of guitarists Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine. That, and Sweet ditched the drum machine in favor of a more human beat.

The results were by turn sweet enough to bring a mist to the eye, depressed enough to prompt a call to the suicide hot line and raucous enough to qualify as stadium-shaking arena rock -- even though the CD's sales, while improved over its predecessors, didn't elevate Sweet to that level of venue. The combination of expertly distorted guitars and Sweet's darkly romantic leanings meshed like a wood rasp with soft pine, and the album's first three tracks are brittle, storming rockers with soft, gooey underbellies, timeless classics in an age of by-the-numbers hooks.

Altered Beast followed with another four or five underappreciated bull's-eyes, then came the slightly repetitive Son of Altered Beast, and now there's the grasp for the brass ring, 100% Fun, a continuation of form that's perhaps more subtle than its precursors in the end, but gives no signs of formula exhaustion. It's harder to write a really memorable pop song than most people seem to think, and Sweet hasn't lost the gift.

100% Fun's first song is also Sweet's first successful radio single, "Sick of Myself," and like its album-leading predecessors on Altered Beast and Girlfriend, it's a rave-up rocker with stutterstep encores that establishes Sweet's band as a rock powerhouse before delving into varying degrees of more-urgent-than-relaxed balladry.

Sweet and band played "Sick of Myself" on the Late Show with David Letterman the other night, and though Letterman's introduction announced a "singer/songwriter," the bob-cut boho who walked on the stage and ripped into "Sick of Myself" sounded first and foremost like the general in a guitar army. Sweet was flat on his vocals, probably because he couldn't hear his monitors over the roar, but the band drove the song on home on the strength of sheer momentum. The guitar-rock mayhem/introspective seeker one-two punch that Sweet wields can carry the day even when firing on only one cylinder. On a good night, it can be magic.

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