Making a covers album can be tricky. There's the material: Do you pick high-profile songs and risk being crushed by the weight of the originals, or do you opt for obscure gems and mitigate the familiarity that's a big part the appeal? Then there's the treatment: Do you wantonly deconstruct the tunes and render them barely covers at all, or stick close to the originals and take a chance of your version being pedestrian by comparison?
These kind of aesthetic issues were decidedly not on the minds of Matthew Sweet and lead Bangle Susanna Hoffs while making Under the Covers, Vol. 1, a lovingly rendered and utterly addictive set of '60s tunes by the likes of The Beatles, The Who and Neil Young, as well as such cult acts as Love, Fairport Convention and Velvet Underground.
"It was only about having fun," Sweet says in a phone interview. "We didn't need to do it. We'd never worked together in the studio before and we didn't want any hassles."
A sense of fun and wonder gushes through Under the Covers. Supreme popsmiths and longtime friends Hoffs and Sweet clearly have a great deal of affection and affinity for the material but never sound hamstrung by its importance. They keep the tempos, melodies and instrumental textures close to the original versions but take a few liberties by expanding the depth and richness of the vocal arrangements.
You could say that karma was on their side from the get-go. Once the project was greenlighted by the Shout Factory label, Hoffs and Sweet scratched out top-of-their-head lists of songs they wanted to remake.
"She came over to my house, and we both had 'She May Call You Up Tonight,' by the Left Banke first on our lists," Sweet says, still amused by the notion. "We couldn't believe the other one had it." (To further underscore the serendipity, note that the song never charted.)
The next few pieces were quickly chosen: The Mamas & the Papas' "Monday, Monday"; The Beach Boys' "The Warmth of the Sun"; Fairport Convention's "Who Knows Where the Time Goes"; and the shimmering album-opener, "I See the Rain" by The Marmalade. "When we started talking about doing the project, all of our record-freak friends started giving us CDs of '60s music," Sweet explains. "Someone gave Sue ['I See the Rain'] on disc, and we both had it on our lists."
From there, it was on to Sweet's Los Angeles home studio. He led a small stable of trusted players, including guitarist and frequent collaborator Richard Lloyd, through the basic tracks, and he brought in Van Dyke Parks to play some keyboards and write orchestrations for a few numbers. "I did most of the harmony [vocal] beds very quickly at home," Sweet says, "to give Sue something to sing on. She's more the lead-singer type."
The team took a few unexpected wrong turns. "We had to abandon 'Go Now!'" Sweet says of the 1965 Moody Blues hit. "We thought we could kick ass on it, but it wasn't working for some reason. We also gave up on 'Go All the Way," by The Raspberries. Susie didn't like her vocal on that one."
Both of those discarded songs are eminently Beatles-esque, and if there's a stylistic touchstone to Under the Covers, it starts with the Fab Four. Only one Beatles tune made the final cut, but Sweet and Hoffs chose wisely, turning out a radiant take of "And Your Bird Can Sing," a track from Revolver that was among the band's best tunes never released as a single. Sweet says that two leftover songs — "Birthday" and "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and Monkey" — will likely be used in some extras capacity. (Other B-sides: The Kinks' "Village Green Preservation Society" and Buffalo Springfield's "On the Way Home.")
The recording process stayed fun and largely glitch-free — and free from the burden of commercial expectations. Then something funny happened. "We finish the record, turn it in, and there's this real excitement," Sweet says. "Suddenly, people are panicking: How do you translate that kind of excitement into commercial success without an obvious radio format? How do you get in front of people?"
Under the Covers is an album with a certain cross-generational appeal, and would seem to be a slam-dunk with baby-boomers. Sweet muses, with a hint of embarrassment, that it would be a perfect fit for Starbucks counters but adds that the coffeemaker's music department is in flux. "People are definitely wondering how to go about" the marketing, he continues. "We're in a transition between the virtual world of music sales and traditional sales, and neither of them seems to be in full force right now. So how do you break through?"
Sweet does not have the answers but doesn't discount the notion that serendipitous events will continue and Under the Covers will find its much-deserved audience.
But he's not going to sweat it if the record fails to blow up, or if music scribes undervalue it. "In a sense, I'd tend to agree with them," Sweet says, perhaps anticipating less-than-stellar treatment from critics. "It's cover stuff. It's not important as real new music. We never felt it was this big, giant thing. It was a fun little project. If it's real listenable, we did our job, but mostly we did it for selfish reasons — to make a recording together of songs we love."
For more info and a complete Under the Covers track list and audio samples, go to www.myspace.com/sidnsusie.