By Jacob Katel
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The attack is a bit "sweeter" this time around for Matthew Sweet. Instead of the usual jabbing guitars flexing up the straight-forward pop, the singer-songwriter has decided to tone things down. "Up until recently Matthew gave guitar players all the room in the world," says guitarist Ivan Julian, who has worked with Sweet for the better part of the last six years. "It used to be, 'The song's in E -- go.' That's changed a bit since he did all the guitars on this last record. You have to mimic his parts. It's difficult."
The new album, Blue Sky on Mars, both suffers and benefits from this approach. Those accustomed to the all-out guitar wars of Sweet's last three albums (1991's Girlfriend, 1993's Altered Beast, and 100% Fun from 1995), might wonder if someone forgot to invite the wiseguys to the party: The host is as amiable as ever, but no one's around to spike the punch. Still, Sweet has had a better chance at getting a little radio play this time, something his type of singer-songwriter power pop needs more than the average rock and roll road band.
"In a way, pop bands have to now be more like blues bands," says Sweet during a phone interview from New York City. "The road is where I've made my living since Girlfriend. I've never made a penny from record sales. People are always saying power pop never really breaks through. Oasis aside, in general it's kind of true. I've never had an explosive record where I sold a lot. I still get the feeling that it's not going quite as well as it should. With the road thing, you're in the trenches trying to keep it going."
Ironic how a music built so firmly around hooks should fail in the marketplace where it seems a natural fit. "I hand a record in and the record company will think there's a million singles on it," Sweet explains. "It's never 'There's no single here, go back and work on it.' The first single from the new album, 'When You Get Love,' got really good radio support but it didn't get the reaction sales-wise."
So Sweet has been left to make converts the old-fashioned way -- one at a time. After shows, instead of spacing out, he meets and greets his fans with a smile on his face. "I feel lucky to have them," he says. "I never expected other people to like my music in the first place. You see, I became a huge Elvis Presley fan and the thing I kept reading in all his books was how no matter what was going on, he always took the time to talk to people and feel thankful for it. That always made an impression on me, as corny as that sounds. There are nights when it's quite a chore. It's always the show you thought was really grim that they're there waiting for you."
Sweet has been on this album-tour-album-tour grind since his third release, 1991's Girlfriend, the album that announced his arrival as a serious contender for the power-pop crown. The story behind Girlfriend has become almost legendary -- how it had been recorded while Sweet was signed with A&M and then sat in limbo for months while he and his management decided the label could not provide the necessary support and looked elsewhere.
"Every label rejected it, even Zoo [the label that eventually released the album]. If someone didn't do something with it, I'd be finished," explains Sweet. "Lots of young people who liked it would get excited and they'd go to their boss and suddenly be convinced it was bad. It was kind of funny. You didn't even hear, 'My boss won't let me do it.' It was more like they'd say, 'This is the best thing ever' and the next week it was, 'It's kind of derivative,' or 'You can't sing.' Something would just pop up."
Eventually Zoo's label head heard one of his A&R people playing the Girlfriend record in the office and inquired as to its status. Upon hearing Zoo had already passed on it, the label head made provisions to sign Sweet pronto. As it happened, Girlfriend was a turning point for the artist. Many fans continue to think of it as Sweet's first album, a viewpoint he doesn't mind. "The diehards have the first two albums [Inside and Earth, released in 1986 and 1989, respectively]. But really it's a blessing since it's just two albums of songs I don't have to hear about how I don't play them," he laughs.
Girlfriend was most noted for bringing two Seventies-punk guitar legends to the foreground: Robert Quine of Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and Television's Richard Lloyd. The addition of the two guitarists put a chaotic vortex at the heart of Sweet's power pop and gave him a level of respectability not usually associated with his chosen genre. Quine, however, had warned Sweet in advance that he wouldn't be available to tour. "Quine used to say to me, 'You do not want to take me out on the road.'" So Sweet didn't. He used Richard Lloyd a bit, but Lloyd has always been a loose cannon -- a great player but a volatile human being. Says Sweet: "One of the cool things about Richard is how he'll work melodically with what's happening. But he's much easier to rein in in the studio than live. That's what I like about touring with Ivan [Julian]. There's more variation in how he'll approach things."