"Kimi Ga Suki"
How willing are you to indulge Matthew Sweet's power pop indulgences? It's impossible to listen to "Living Things" without wondering at times. Vocal harmonies accrue layer upon layer. Steel drums, electric mandolin, piano, harpsichord, harmonica, accordion and a rack full of guitars generate waves of splashing colors. Lyrics, sunny or sad, swirl about like so many passing thoughts.
With his boyish tenor and Beach Boysish sonic palette, Sweet never sounds more engaging than when he's in a playful or innocent mood, as on "The Big Cats of Shambala," a vibrantly tiered pop treat, or "Sunlight," which finds special guest Van Dyke Parks pulling out all the stops on organ, piano, electric harpsichord and, not to be overlooked, the zither-related marxophone. "Cats vs. Dogs," which also features Parks, is another slice of whimsy, an ingeniously crafted novelty from start to finish. Sweet's songwriting isn't always so reliable, though. "You're Not Sorry" is a routine pop lament, no matter how you orchestrate it, and there are a few other lyrics that aren't nearly as appealing or clever as their musical backdrops.
It's no coincidence that "Kimi Ga Suki," a new Sweet CD originally intended for release in Japanese (and issued there last year), recalls his widely acclaimed 1991 album "Girlfriend." It is a reunion of sorts, after all, featuring multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz, drummer Ric Menck and Television guitarist Richard Lloyd. What Sweet calls a "love letter" to his Japanese fans turns out to be a much leaner and punchier offering than "Living Strings," and what it lacks in aural embellishments, it more than makes up for in consistency and concision. The songwriting is smart and focused, with the soulful musing "Morning Song" and the pop-funk coda "Through Your Eyes" ranking among the more memorable cuts.
Sweet's longtime buddies in Velvet Crush share his passion for celebrating the recent past with hook-laden pop-rock. But "Stereo Blues," the Rhode Island band's new release, seldom moves beyond that point. Menck and fellow tunesmith Paul Chastain vigorously turn back the clock with a batch of songs that shouldn't disappoint fans of '90s alt-pop. The band even manages to shake off all the accumulated dust now and then, especially on "Want You Now" Yet the advice dished out on the ballad "Fall Awake" -- "sweep away the useless yesterdays you tried on" -- ends up sounding awfully ironic.
-- Mike Joyce
Appearing Saturday at the 9:30 club. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Matthew Sweet's "Living Things," call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8106; to hear "Kimi Ga Suki," press 8107; to hear Velvet Crush, press 8108. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)