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Playing it straight

Under the CoversOK, I’ll admit it. I’ve got a soft spot for Susanna Hoffs. It might be traceable to the Bangles’ “If She Knew What She Wants”, a great Jules Shear song and one of the best pop singles of the 1980s. And perhaps also to the fact that she’s always reminded me of the sort of dark-eyed girl you might meet at a party when you’re 17 or 18, the one who steals your heart and eventually hands it back with a crack that can never quite be repaired. And I’ll stop that line of inquiry right there.

What Hoffs is up to now is a series of albums with Matthew Sweet, titled Under the Covers and released on the Shout! Factory label.  Vol 1, which came out in 2006, contains cover versions of songs from the ’60s, Vol 2 appeared in 2009 and deals with the ’70s, and Vol 3, just out, takes us into the ’80s. The basic parameters are defined by the sort of music that provided the inspiration for power pop: jingle-jangle folk-rock with gentle excursions into psychedelia, country-rock, sunshine pop and, on the most recent disc, the dreaded prog.

Don’t expect anything radical. On the face of it, these are not much more than superior versions of those cut-price cover 45s that Woolworth’s used to sell on their Embassy label. They aren’t re-interpretations. All they do is play the songs, very much as they were originally recorded, just as a bar band would. Hoffs and Sweet alternate the lead vocals, and it’s their own voices that make the difference, along with the fuller sound allowed by modern technology. Anyway, there’s something in these records that makes me play them a lot, and it’s probably a quality deriving from the sound of enthusiasm at work.

I loved Vol 1 most of all for their version of the Stone Poneys’ “Different Drum”, a song that Hoffs was born to sing (without in any way invalidating the job Linda Ronstadt did on the original). Other highlights were “Alone Again Or”, “Sunday Morning” and “Care of Cell 44”. I wasn’t quite as fond of Vol 2, probably because I could quite happily go through the rest of my life without hearing “All the Young Dudes” and “I’ve Seen All Good People” again, although Sweet’s version of Tom Petty’s “Here Comes My Girl” is a beauty, and Hoffs’ treatment of “Everything I Own” makes me look on Bread with a kinder eye.

Vol 3 is better, starting beautifully with Sweet singing REM’s “Sitting Still” before handing over to Hoffs for a driving gender-bent version of Elvis Costello’s “Girls Talk”. She also does a good job with Chrissie Hynde’s “Kid”, on which Sweet pays note-perfect homage to Jimmy Honeyman-Scott’s classic guitar solo. His version of the Bongos’ “The Bulrushes” is exquisite, and the two voices blend well on another favourite Petty song, “Free Fallin'”.

Not every record that works its way into my affections has to be a masterpiece. These are great records to play in the car, and that’s enough. As far as I’m concerned, Sid ‘n’ Susie — as they like to call themselves in this context — can carry on turning them out for as long as they like.

* The photograph of Susanna Hoffs and Matthew Sweet is from the cover of Under the Covers Vol 1 and was taken by Henry Diltz.

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6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Why the feigned coyness? More or less EVERY man of a certain age (or indeed most ages – I’m roughly twenty years younger than you) has a soft spot for Susanna Hoffs.

    TOTP, 1986, singing ‘Manic Monday’…never forgotten it.

    December 2, 2013
  2. Chris Charlesworth #

    I think I’ll check this out Richard. The only time I ever met Chrissie Hynde (a book deal that never happened, long story), the first words I said to her were: “Can I just tell you that James Honeyman Scott’s guitar solo in ‘Kid’ is one of the greatest on record.” She was duly flattered. I’m also a sucker for ‘Here Comes My Girl’. Killer chorus and the way he says “Watch her walk” says everything you need to know about her.

    December 2, 2013
  3. “The sound of enthusiasm at work” is a great phrase, Richard… did you ever hear Robbie Fulks love song to Hoffs, “That Bangle Girl”?

    “A long time ago in south California, oh oh way oh
    In the land of the tall jacaranda, oh whoa-da way oh.
    Lived a girl group singing pop-rock favorites, oh oh way oh
    So good that they soon got famous, oh whoa-da way oh.”

    December 3, 2013
    • Very amusing. You’re the second trusted friend who’s told me about that. “I’d show her books I’ve read / I’d play her my records / I’d listen to the things she said / I’d so respect her…” Who hasn’t felt like that?

      December 3, 2013
  4. Mr. Williams, I’m sure you are the gentleman i’ve been looking for. My name is Steve Verroca I produced all the Link Wray’s three track shack material. At the time I re-discovered Link I had no idea that any record label would be interested in a old rocker like Link who really invented Rock & Roll. It was your review and write up on the Polydor LP in I believe Melody Maker that made me know I had done the right thing.

    I don’t remember if we ever met while I was at Virgin records, but I have a fade memory that I talk to you and John Peel with a call to interview Link Wray in Tucson Arizona or maybe it was Dick Medow. Anyway the Link Wray saga it is not over yet, I’m Planning to release some of the shack recordings I still have on Link and as you may be aware that Link Wray as just been nominated the the Rock & Roll Hall of fame. Without Link Wray it should not be called the R&R Hall. Perhaps you could do some writing on Link’s behalf if you feel he belongs in the Hall. If you wish to contact me, please be free to do so, thank you.

    All my best to you,
    Steve Verroca,
    1-805-262-2362

    December 5, 2013
  5. Jeff Gifford #

    I’m with you Richard on UNDER THE COVERS 1&2 and most likely vol 3 when I hear it. I like them for much the same reason I liked Todd Rundgren’s – FAITHFULL album of covers. I can’t quite put it to words why that is but “The sound of enthusiasm at work” does nicely in the meantime. It’s like listening to artists I respect do their own radio show, playing the songs that mean something to them but simultaneously have the added bonus of hearing their admiration for the songs in their interpretation. There are so many ways this could have gone wrong, but doesn’t in the hands of these lovers of their craft.

    December 5, 2013

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