Playing it straight
OK, 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.