Matthew Sweet
Blue Sky on Mars

The disappointment of Blue Sky on Mars cuts two ways. First, there are the songs: Aside from a few hummable gems that transcend time and cliche ("Back Two You," "All Over My Head," "Make Believe"), this is the blandest batch of songcraft that Matthew Sweet has ladled out since his ill-fated incarnation in the late '80s as a self-absorbed synth sap.

Second, there's the stale tenor of the thing. With the exception of "Missing Time," a gorgeous ballad that provides rejuvenation and relief at Blue Sky's tail end, Sweet's sixth full-lengther displays a choked redundancy that indicates not only a lack of fresh ideas, but a cynical concession to that reality. The production, handled with a loose hand by Sweet and Brendan O'Brien, is as scattershot as it is stifling, the music loosely moored in rubbery keyboard flourishes and fat percussion and missing the skewed grounding of guitarists Robert Quine and Richard Lloyd. The playing of Quine and Lloyd provided a ragged contrast to Sweet's candied coyness. In effect, they were his rock and roll saviors.

Sweet could have used a little spiritual pick-me-up here. Blue Sky's paralysis shows most in the lyrics. True, Sweet has never been a wizard with profundities, his themes tending to be of the standard-issue relationship/hangover variety. His jilted-lover routine went over best on 1991's Girlfriend, mainly because on that disc Sweet was so brutally exposed, so thoroughly wrapped up in his own misery. But a guy can only sink that low for so long, and since then, Sweet has drifted away from the direct course, often trading confessional depth for absurd innuendo. At times on Blue Sky his disposal poetry one-ups his instinct for memorable hooks. "Sew shut the mouth of the river slut" isn't a line I'd prefer to have knocking around my head, but it's there, whether I like it or not.

Blue Sky on Mars is remedial Sweet, though even remedial Sweet has its pleasures -- those flirtations with brilliance that hint at the charm this pure-pop Casanova can throw like a light switch even when he appears only half-interested in turning you on. Surrender to his wiles, but be warned: This time, you might not respect yourself in the morning. (** 1/2)

-- Hobart Rowland

Lefty Frizzell
Look What Thoughts Can Do: The Essential Lefty Frizzell
That's the Way Love Goes: The Final Recordings of Lefty Frizzell
Varese Vintage

Daniel Cooper's fine Lefty Frizzell biography claims, right there on its cover, that Frizzell was "Country Music's Greatest Singer." After listening to the two new Frizzell retrospectives, I can understand why someone might want to make such an argument. Frizzell sang in a charming, earnest style that could be flowery and plain-spoken all at once. His sweet voice would dip down, then swoop up, sliding all around the ends of lines, and his flurries of fragile notes were occasionally reminiscent of quiet yodels.

Over the years, his melismatic approach has become the stock in trade of a long line of great country singers -- you can hear the Frizzell in everyone from Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson to John Anderson and George Strait -- but when the singer first applied it to his 1950 recording of "I Love You a Thousand Ways," it set the woods on fire. Certainly the post-Hank Williams country world has not seen a more influential singer than Lefty Frizzell.

Still, to many, arguing that Frizzell was country's "greatest" singer seems something of a stretch. Surely Frizzell contemporaries such as Webb Pierce, Ray Price, Ira Louvin and George Jones were arguably every bit as good, and numerous country singers since him -- Patsy Cline, Conway Twitty, Haggard, even Strait -- would be equally smart bets. Nonetheless, Look What Thoughts Can Do does a good job of making the case for Frizzell. At the same time, however, it points out the weaknesses in the pro-Frizzell argument. The two-disc set covers Frizzell's career from 1950 to 1964, but 23 of the 34 singles here were recorded between 1950 and 1954, and more than half of those were recorded in the first two whirlwind years of his career, when he was a serious chart challenger to Hank Williams himself. That breakdown certainly puts the emphasis where it should be, but it also makes clear just how shallow the Frizzell catalog really is. Yet what there is of it is regularly stunning. Listening to Frizzell's delicate version of Jimmie Rodgers's "Travelin' Blues," his exuberant "Shine, Shave, Shower," his eerie and now iconic "Long Black Veil," the weary fatalism of the title track and more than several others here should be enough to persuade most anyone to be a Frizzell fan. (****)

Years of hard living and harder drinking, bad management and worse timing culminated in Frizzell's too-early death in 1975. That's the Way Love Goes chronicles the best of the recordings that would wind up being his last, and I'd argue that this period featured the most consistently perfect music he ever made, not to mention the best songs (with friend Whitey Shafer assisting) that he ever wrote. Frizzell's voice here is deeper, and he resorts to his patented note-swirling much less often, rendering the technique all the more effective when he does make use of it. On the gorgeous Frizzell-Shafer title track, he sounds as lucky and grateful as any singer ever. And while the jaunty honky-tonk piano on the original "I Love You a Thousand Ways" 20 years earlier always seemed to be fighting Frizzell's words, this 1972 version, recorded at his next-to-last session, sounds both as hopeful and afraid as I always thought it should. Like everything on That's the Way Love Goes, it's just beautiful. No arguments allowed. (****)

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