Under the Covers v2

Release Date: July 21, 2009
Produced by: Matthew Sweet/Susanna Hoffs
Format: CD



Mark Squirek


Sid 'n Susie are back with a glorious celebration of the best of pop, harmonies and great songwriting. On their first outing, the duo served up a helpful mix of hits and obscurities that should have been hits from the sixties. As they turn their attention to the decade that followed they find themselves moving into radio-friendly era of music. As the times changed, so do the types of songs covered by Sid 'n Susie, or as they are better known, Mathew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs.

What they have created this time is a joyous tribute to the days when radio, briefly freed from tightly constrained playlists looking towards the bottom line, held a million surprises. Sweet and Hoffs come through at almost every turn.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Maggie May. Originally relegated to the b-side of Rod’s latest single of the day, the song was flipped over by a DJ and suddenly took off. Today it is a standard. Because it is so closely associated with Rd you would think that this would be a near impossible song to cover. But Sid n Susie succeed because they have the greatest secret weapon that a group can have, they have two vocalists who absolutely love what they are singing.

Hoffs has never been better. Yes, Sweet is as near a genius as you can find and his skills as an arranger and guitarist are second to none. But Hoffs has grown so much as a vocalist that almost every song on this album jumps because she is involved. She has found a wonderful mixture of confidence, directness, sweetness and sincerity inside her voice.

There was a hint of how confident she was when she covered Different Drum on the first volume. That song was so closely associated with Linda Ronstadt that, like Maggie May, you would think that no one could touch it because the original singer brought so much to it. But Hoffs takes each song and, instead of making us forget who sang it originally, she makes us love the song as a song unto itself. She celebrates what the writer put inside the song. And in almost every instance Sweet is right there chiming in at exactly the right moment.

If you think I am stretching here listen to the way the two work on the old Yes warhorse, I’ve Seen All Good People: Your Move/All Good People. The song opens with perfect harmonies reminding us that, while the song is usually associated with the extravagance of progressive rock, the first part is really just a folk song. When Hoffs picks up the solo vocal after Sweet’s crisp guitar lines, it is one of the best moments on the record. As she moves everything forward Sweet drops in with perfect harmonies and at the end they double track themselves. It may be the best moment on a record that has already filled with a dozen of them.

Producing and arranging songs that we know so well is the secret challenge of the release. Sweet and Hoffs come close to perfect. Sometimes the arrangements mirror their originals in the same way that Batman will go to a parallel DC Universe and see slightly different version of himself. He knows it’s a parallel Batman but it takes a while for him to wrap his head around it. On the aforementioned Your Move they took out the deliberate thump of Chris Squire’s original bass as it occurred directly on the beat and freed up the rest of the song. Second Hand News (brightened even further by a visit from its author, Lindsey Buckingham) jumps out of the speakers with kinetic abandon where as the original moved at more of a gallop with the steadiness of Fleetwood and McVie behind it.

The bass line at the beginning of You're So Vain originally opened with the rumbling stutter of the bass. On their version, Sweet and Hoffs have given the bass more of a straightforward line. This seems to work in tandem with the directness of Hoffs’ vocal. When Carly Simon sang the song she seemed to have an air of detached observation, as if she couldn’t believe that her subject could be so incredibly self- absorbed. We knew the guy she was talking about was an idiot but Simon seemed to be amazed that the guy couldn’t realize it. Hoffs doesn’t seem to care whether he understands or not, she is simply declaring a fact. There is a hint of disgust in the way that she sing “wife of a close friend" that lets you know her coldness towards the man in question.

The album brings back a song long relegated to the Time-Life series of Seventies Soft Rock set of ten CDs as announced by the two guys from Air Supply. Bread and David Gates may have had a lot of hit singles in the early Seventies but they never had the critical cachet that other, lesser skilled groups had. Gates was a strong writer and deserved better. Sweet and Hoffs address this with their cover of Everything I Own. Sitting on a bed of steel guitars and perfect percussion Hoffs vocal moves the song outside of its own softness and makes it an open declaration of intent.

Covering Hello It’s Me may have been the biggest gamble of the album. Through repeated exposure on The 70’s Show and it’s status as a chestnut on oldies radio it may be the most played and nostalgic song on the album. When Sweet and Hoffs hit with the harmonies they move the song someplace that it couldn’t go when Todd was double tracking himself on the original. At the end Hoffs sings “Think of Me” and she adds something that Todd never could have, the other half of the song that no one ever thought was missing. 

The album does have one or two slight missteps. The opener of Sugar Magnolia needs to jump out of the speakers and in a rare lack of energy the two seem to be trying to find their footsteps as the album opens. If they had bumped the song to the middle of the album it might have worked better. With such a strong version of Go All the Way right behind it the song needs to get out of the way.

As far as the song Willin’, it was covered by every Mr. and Mrs. Acoustic Duo in every bar across America two minutes after Little Feat first released it. The song eventually collapsed under it’s own weight somewhere around 1978. Rumor has it that a local congressman in Missouri tried to introduce legislation forbidding anyone except Little Feat from ever covering it again. Still, Sid 'n Susie are so good that they actually made me glad to hear the song again.

Sweet and Hoffs really took on an amazing challenge here. I remember when the song list first came out a few months ago and wondering how they were going to pull this off.  With their talents I could easily see Go All the Way or Beware of Darkness working so well, but Bell Bottom Blues? Gimme Some Truth? These are songs you just don’t see on covers albums and the two really make them work.

From the spot-on and incredibly warm harmonies to the subtle changes in the arrangements of what we know as so familiar, their love for the source material and what they do shines through. A great covers album like this (and its companion first volume) will take us back while also showing us something new about what we know so well. That’s a hard trick to do and Sweet and Hoffs almost knock it out of the park.

The first volume was a transistor radio under the pillow of a kid in the farmland, the second volume is now an FM radio turned up loudly as the kid cuts study hall to go smoke a joint at 1:30 in the afternoon. You have to wonder where volume three will go. No matter where it goes, I am anxious to hear what Sid 'n Susie think is important.









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212 Frech

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