Monday, September 10, 2018

Review: Vinyl Reissue of Matthew Sweet's 'Altered Beast'

When critics fell over themselves to praise Matthew Sweet’s breakthrough, Girlfriend, they tended to focus on the music’s sweetness: the glimmering jangle of his overdubbed guitars, the comforting retro-ness of his Beatles and Byrds references, the classic concision of his songs, the lushness of Fred Maher’s production. So when Sweet followed that big hit with the deliberately messy and acidic Altered Beast, a lot of the critics were baffled. Perhaps they hadn’t been listening close enough to the underlying nastiness of Girlfriend tracks such as “Thought I Knew You”, “Does She Talk?”, and “Holy War”. If they had been, Altered Beast would have seemed like a more logical progression as Sweet builds on the bitterness of such songs with production to match. Yes, Richard Dashut is best known as Fleetwood Mac’s smash-era producer, but Sweet didn’t hire Dashut for his pristine work on Rumours. Sweet was more interested in channeling the sloppy derangement of Tusk, and just as Tusk was more fascinating and challenging than Rumours, Altered Beast is—in this reviewer’s perhaps unpopular opinion—a similar improvement over Girlfriend. 

The polish flakes away as rusty guitars roar, well-deep drums bash, and Sweet sneers and spits. “Dinosaur Act”, “Devil with the Green Eyes”, “Ugly Truth Rock”, “In Too Deep”, and especially “Knowing People” are straight-up mean, and their loathing feels more authentic than the mass of Sweet’s grungier contemporaries because of his pop rep. It sounds like he was willing to burn down his critical good will for the sake of getting something toxic off his chest. He did make room for some of the more soothing pop styles of Girlfriend, though “Life without You”, “Time Capsule”, “What Do You Know?”, and “Someone to Pull the Trigger” do not skimp on the despair. So while the production sounds messy, the vision is actually quite focused, and for my money, Altered Beast is Matthew Sweet’s underappreciated peak.

Intervention Records’ 100% analog audiophile edition of Altered Beast—the second release in its trilogy of Sweet reissues—doesn’t clean up that messy sound; it just presents its with startling clarity, authenticity, and sonic might. Guitars are remarkably present whether grinding out on “Dinosaur Act”, shimmering on “Time Capsule”, or booming from a bottomless pit on “In Too Deep”. Details reveal themselves. Until now I’d never really noticed that weird percussive touch on “Someone to Pull the Trigger” that sounds like Sweet brushing his teeth.

Intervention’s vinyl is presented as a double album with bonus tracks on Side Four, which shifts the natural side divider—that goofy audio clip from Caligula—to the middle of Side Two (an even weirder Caligula clip hidden at the end of the original CD edition is left out entirely). Bonus tracks are stronger than those on Intervention’s recent edition of 100% Fun. They include what may be Sweet’s best non-LP tracks—the corrosive “Superdeformed” from the No Alternative compilation—and all B-sides from the “Ugly Truth” and “Time Capsule” singles (though not the “Devil with the Green Eyes” single), as well as “Bovine Connection” from the extended Japanese edition of Son of Altered Beast. The American edition of that E.P. will presumably be the next installment of Intervention’s Matthew Sweet vinyl campaign, which remains the vinyl reissue campaign to beat in 2018.

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