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Divine Intervention: How they made Matthew sound so sweet



In the world of record production, months, even years, can be spent in pursuit of perfection: the perfectly rhythmic snare precisely crashing, or the pristine guitar dispensing its music without a hint of human participation. Voices have to be perfect too--a difficult proposition. So if the voice comes close once, say on a chorus, you can just strip the same recording in each time you need it. Now, there are a lot of reasons production is done that way these days, some pathetic (anal or blindered people with too much money on their hands), some logical (why not get it right if you can?), some almost reasonable (the pressing need to accommodate the growing sophistication of the ears of the pop audience). This is all part of the progress of rock 'n' roll, and there's no point in fueling the fires of carping Luddites or knee-jerk nostalgists.

Still, you can make the argument that what this technology has produced lately is a sort of glittery sameness, particularly in the work of mainstream superstars. Production, remember, has nothing to do with instrumentation or styles: think of it as the method by which a particular artistic vision is translated to vinyl (oops!--aluminum plating). You can hear an eerie sameness in the singer's voice on records by artists as disparate as Janet Jackson and Def Leppard, George Michael and Mr. Big. Drums echo in your brain, voices take on an unnatural sheen, guitars sound somehow disembodied--there's little sense that these are instruments being played by real people. Even records that are wonderfully produced--U2's Achtung Baby, for instance--are adventurous and challenging not because of but despite their adherence to elaborate production techniques.

Again, there's nothing really bad about this, and ten years from now we're going to be worried about robots composing music, not anal retentives producing it. Still, it's telling that the one album I've played the most over the past year is Matthew Sweet's Girlfriend, a record that was made in complete contravention of nearly every current production verity. I don't mean that it's an "acoustic" record, or a "rough" one; that it was recorded "live," or that it was made with a technophobe's distrust of the studio. On the contrary, Girlfriend is a producer's album from start to finish. But it's different.

On the surface the album is just a fairly strong song cycle of mostly ballads by a promising young singer-songwriter. But Sweet, producer Fred Maher, and engineer Jim Rondinelli decided that rather than put the songs at the service of the studio, they'd put the studio at the service of the songs. The result is an album of real songs played by real people that nevertheless shimmers with a sonic multidimensionality that, while very up-to-date, recalls some of pop's most enticing earlier achievements: late-period Beatles, certainly, but also the work of Lindsey Buckingham with Fleetwood Mac, and the casual psychedelia of Prince. If you're feeling alienated from a lot of contemporary music just on the basis of sound quality, Girlfriend is a record you might want to check out.

I'd been entranced by the album for months when I met engineer Rondinelli by chance at a music conference; I've spent some time with him on the phone since, talking about the record. When Sweet came through town recently, opening a couple of shows for the Indigo Girls at the Chicago Theatre, I grabbed at the chance to meet him at his hotel and go over the album with him. The conversations allowed me to piece together the making of Girlfriend's radiant charms.

Sweet still has his Nebraskan twang; a music fan as a teenager, he met members of R.E.M. on their first passes through town in the early 80s. His correspondence with Michael Stipe and, later, producer Mitch Easter brought him to R.E.M. HQ in Athens, Georgia, for college. While there he joined Stipe's sister's band, Oh-OK, and he and the band also recorded under the name Buzz of Delight. Those connections paid off, getting him a record contract with CBS, a guest shot on a Golden Palominos album, and a position as bassist for Lloyd Cole. He recorded Inside in 1986 for CBS (now Sony); the same exec that signed him there, noted A and R man Steve Ralbovsky, later brought him to A&M for his second album, Earth. Both are tuneful and pleasant but were sunk by the electropop, machine-driven production Sweet was pursuing; all the rhythm tracks were done with drum programming. The records are misdirected at best, slight at worst.

After Earth, Sweet got together with Maher, whom he'd met in Cole's band and who subsequently helped produce certain tracks on Earth. Rondinelli, a former Chicagoan who'd produced Souled American's first album, had worked with Maher before, notably on Trip Shakespeare's terrific Across the Universe. For Sweet's third record, the trio decided to run in the other direction. They wanted to make a pop album, but one that was roughed up and immediate. "The Beatles' production was so good because everything was done to express their music and their vision," says Sweet. "And they recorded it cleanly, without digital reverb to fuck it up or everything else that people do to make records have less impact today. I think they had the ideal clean modern recording style. The white album was very much a sonic model for Girlfriend; [Fleetwood Mac's] Tusk is another."

The first step was to lay aside the ideal of studio perfectionism. Sweet didn't want to make a record dotted with pieced-together vocal and instrumental tracks. Accordingly, whatever the musicians played would be showcased as performances--i.e., the songs would be constructed from full, song-length recordings of the different instruments and voices. You might be surprised to hear that such song construction is considered somewhat radical these days; it goes without saying that so-called "live-in-the-studio" efforts are almost nonexistent. "People come into the studio and want to do it 'live,'" notes Rondinelli, "but that's just not the way it works. Trying to record live in the studio just sucks up energy, and stuff that seems endearing in a real live performance just doesn't keep well."

Another big departure: to call attention to the individual instruments, no reverb was used. One of the biggest pitfalls of recording in the 80s and 90s, Rondinelli maintains, is overprocessing through reverb. "Drums start to sound like jet planes, and the emotional nuances of the performers get lost," he says. Instead, the tracks were heavily compressed--a studio process that limits the high-end frequencies of the recording and has the effect of making all the instruments in a track sound equally loud. Despite the technology inherent in these two decisions, in both cases they contributed to the producers' goal of creating a usable illusion of tactile, expressive ensemble playing.

At the same time, some other production decisions were made that seemingly contradict this naturalism. For one, Maher and Rondinelli laid the compression on thick. "We used very limited technology in making the record, but we overutilized every bit that we did use," Rondinelli says dryly. "I think Girlfriend redefined the use of compression in rock." For another, it was decided that Sweet's voice would be the only one on the record: this emphasizes Sweet's pleasant personality, but it also gives Girlfriend an insular feel reminiscent of one-man-band efforts by Todd Rundgren or Prince. Also, the trio cheerfully used the studio for something Rondinelli calls "events": pieces of backward tapes inserted into the mix, blasts of amp hum, an exaggerated stereo separation on some songs, an instance or two of technological distortion of Sweet's voice, and more.

Neither Sweet nor Rondinelli thinks that the tension embodied in these decisions--using studio know-how to create a "natural record," and then undercutting it with self-conscious additions like the backward tape snippets--is anything special; to me, however, it's the source of Girlfriend's scintillating intelligence. The record seems alive and aware, an unabashedly 90s product that slyly pays homage to its predecessors. In Girlfriend, I hear the story of modern pop: technology fighting rear-guard battles against popular myths of the importance of the "natural" and the "real."

Much of the album's production philosophy is embodied in its leadoff tour de force, "Divine Intervention." Unadorned, the song might be a little soggy. ("It's basically a 12-bar blues with great lyrics about Matthew's doubts of a supreme being," says Rondinelli.) But that was before the song hit the studio. The first sound you hear when laser hits disc is a sudden, eerie burst of vocals--it turns out that the sound is a digitally reversed snatch of chorus. After a few seconds, this summarily ends with a dramatic guitar chord in the left channel. This dissolves into a burst of feedback (an homage to the Beatles' "I Feel Fine"), which is itself interrupted by a tense amp hum and the voice of drummer Ric Menck counting off the beat. But even this in turn is interrupted, defaced by a brief, moaning guitar note, before Sweet's chunky rhythm guitar finally introduces the song proper.

Missing from "Divine Intervention" is almost everything that makes a song sound "hard rock"--there are no bashed-out guitar chords, and the drumming is unobtrusive--but the texture of Sweet's clenched-fisted, crunchy guitar and a lacerating, wide-open solo by Richard Lloyd ultimately turn the song into a raging rocker: not Metallica-style, but a proud descendant of the more pop-based hard rock created by the Beatles. (Think of the screaming solo on "Good Morning Good Morning," for example, or the guitar battle in the midst of "The End.") A severe separation of the mix--bass and drums on the right channel, Sweet's guitar on the left--gives the song its luminous spaciousness. If you play around with your balance knob you can hear some amusing fillips (a clanky piano, some odd guitar fills). It's not exactly the most fun you've had with two speakers since Abbey Road, but touches like these give the song depth and humor. There's a fabulous and dramatic bit of backward tape in the second chorus, for example, a bunch more Beatlesy touches (a "Here Comes the Sun" salute, most notably), and not one but two false ends. The first is a dead stop, the second a long false fade-out--done, both Sweet and Rondinelli say, not as a conscious reference to similar Beatles-era shenanigans but merely to save the end of Richard Lloyd's scorching guitar solo.

The stereo playfulness came about by accident as well. "Fred was running the drums through an ancient compressor," says Sweet, "when they went out on one side. I said, 'Wow, let's do it like the Beatles, and have these compressed drums just on one speaker.' 'Divine Intervention' was one of the first songs we recorded, and at the time I wanted to do a lot of the rest of the record really highly stereo: but it didn't work very well on most of the other songs. We tried it a lot, but it just didn't seem like the right thing to do." (The other song with extreme separation is "Evangeline"; check out particularly the cacophonous final 45 seconds, where a furious solo by Lloyd in the right channel overshadows a milder contrapuntal effort by Sweet in the left.)

Girlfriend's lead guitarists are Lloyd, once of Television, and Robert Quine, a nasty guitar slinger who started out in the Voidoids and played with Sweet on Lloyd Cole's two solo albums. Together they make Girlfriend a guitar album on a par with some of Neil Young's classic work in the 70s. Even a Byrdsian romp like "I've Been Waiting," the album's new single, is not only based on a rollicking guitar line but is kicked into high gear with yet another singing, personable solo. "Evangeline," a mysterious but rocking song having something to do with some comic-book characters, has a similarly wound-up riff driving the song; and on "Don't Go" there seems to be one entire track of nothing but feedback, which at song's end bursts into yet another piercing Lloyd workout.

Another key aspect to Girlfriend is the drumming, which is done by both Maher and Menck, drummer for the midwestern band Velvet Crush. Where drums dominate the sound on many current records, on Girlfriend they are casual, almost incidental; each track's rhythms, no matter who the player is, radiate a loping, friendly quality that I think is best described by the not-quite-technical term "Ringo drumming." Their restraint plays an important part in maintaining the balance of another tension in the record: that between those guitar parts and the record's otherwise extremely tasteful instrumentation. For every roaring "Girlfriend" or "Don't Go" there are two or three more-conventional pop-rock ballads. (Sweet says "A heavy-metal fan who sees 'Girlfriend' on MTV and goes out and buys the album is going to say, 'Hey, this is a chick record!'") "I've Been Waiting" is an effortless, hook-filled joy; the knowing and sad "Looking at the Sun" has an off-kilter guitar lick that sidles into another dreamy chorus; "Winona" is a C and W-flavored ballad with steel guitar.

And then, of course, there's that delightful sensibility. "Day for Night," a slow grinder with Sweet's voice put through an echo device, is an unwitting (according to Sweet) homage to "Oh Darling"; at the end of "Evangeline," you can hear the crackling of an old-fashioned record outgroove (taped off a Morrissey 12-inch), which finally picks up and sets back down for side two. There's another inserted outgroove noise after the original end of the record, "Your Sweet Voice." The final three songs--"Does She Talk?" "Holy War," and "Nothing Lasts"--are considered bonus tracks.

After Sweet, Maher, and Rondinelli emerged from the studio, in November of 1990, they found that Sweet's man at A&M was no longer there. As is not unusual in the business, there was concern that without strong support at the label the record might get "lost"--i.e., either not get released or, worse, not get sufficient promotional support. After some discussions, Sweet says, A&M cordially allowed him to shop the tape around--which he didn't mind, because a mild industry "buzz" about the record had developed and he didn't think he'd have any trouble selling it. But as often happens, the buzz evaporated in the face of Sweet's being an artist with two undistinguished records and a newly orphaned one. Zoo Entertainment bit at first, but they eventually passed--until the company's president heard a staffer constantly playing the record. The president changed his mind, the record came out late last summer, and with the help of MTV and a few radio stations--WXRT is one--Girlfriend has turned into a minor sleeper nearly a year after its release, selling a total of a quarter of a million copies. Right now, Zoo and Sweet are banking on the new "I've Been Waiting" single to help things along. (The CD single, incidentally, has three live songs--including covers of "She Said She Said" and "Mr. Soul"--recorded at Cabaret Metro last March.) Sweet says that while Girlfriend's long road to release never exactly got him down, he did from time to time consider the implications of a failure. "To tell you the truth, I was mostly concerned that it would be my last album. I thought that if this just got left on the shelf, they wouldn't let me make any more records."

The debate over Sister Souljah--the undistinguished rapper whom Bill Clinton used as a pawn to create a spat with Jesse Jackson a couple of weeks ago--prompted, in the popular press, more than its share of something I call Quincying. Quincying is hard to describe, but you know it when you hear it. It generally involves an establishment-type person naively attacking a form of popular culture, and doing it with such hypocrisy and smugness that the onlooker wishes the imagined evil really did exist. The term for this comes, of course, from the great punk-rock episode of Quincy, immortalized for all time nearly ten years ago by a Tom Carson TV column in the Village Voice. The show's thesis was that punk rock was performed and listened to by sicko nihilistic killers. Most notorious was the final scene, with Jack Klugman and his girlfriend dancing cheek-to-cheek to some pathetic dinner music. "Why do people listen to music that makes them want to hate," asked Quincy, nuzzling his date's ear, "when they can listen to music that makes them want to love?"

"Well," replied Carson, "because of people like you, Jack. That's why, you craggy blob of angry sputum."

After Clinton's blindsiding of Souljah at a Rainbow Coalition Leadership Summit in New York, the nation's thumbsuckers had a field day. Some debated whether Clinton's move was strategically smart or dumb. Others, however, went after Souljah and Quincied all night long. Clinton had attacked one line of Souljah's--a line that had been used as a photo caption in the Washington Post some two weeks before: "If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week to kill white people?" Souljah said afterward that she was just articulating what might have been going through rioters' minds in the wake of the Rodney King verdict, and the full quote bears this out:

"If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week to kill white people? You understand what I'm saying? It's rebellion, it's revenge . . . In other words, white people, this government and that mayor were well aware of the fact that black people are dying every day in Los Angeles under gang violence. So if you're a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person? Do you think that somebody thinks that white people are better, or above dying, when they would kill their own kind?"

Now, you can quibble with the enthusiasm with which Souljah articulates the above, but she's obviously not doing anything but giving a sardonic and, it's important to note, pained commentary on an emotionally laden subject. (Her remarks are precisely parallel to Richie Daley's sarcastic comments on the recent looting after the Bulls championship: "You have to understand--when you're celebrating in America, what you do is break a window and grab something.") Souljah has put out one entirely undistinguished album, and may not even be a nice person. But those considerations are irrelevant. The important thing is she didn't say anything racist or inflammatory.

That didn't stop the press. After jury duty and traffic school, it's easier to write a column about an alleged call for blacks to kill whites than almost anything else. Since there are still a few intellectually honest journalists on the national level (like the snail darter and spotted owl, they continue to exist in certain limited areas at the discretion of those in charge) the issue of whether Souljah had really said anything bad occasionally came up, even if it was generally ruled not to matter. "I don't know exactly what . . . Sister Souljah said before and after the killing-white-people quote that Governor Clinton condemned," wrote Newsweek essayist Lorene Cary. Over at Time, Jack White quoted Souljah's defense, but then dismissed it, using a completely inapposite quote from her album to bolster his case. And in Newsweek's lead story, John Leland cited Souljah's "inflammatory nonsense." He then quoted her explanation, only to dismiss it: "Her reasoning didn't much matter."

Locally, with one interesting exception, columnists Quincied furiously with no apparent need to quote Souljah's side of the story, or even the context of her remarks. The Sun-Times's Carl Rowan dopily sided with Clinton in one issue, and then filed one of those columnar cliches where the columnist, in the guise of carrying on a dialogue with readers, lobs himself softball questions that he then knocks out of the park.

"Question: Why did you walk away from black solidarity with Rev. Jackson and write that Clinton did the right thing?

"Reply: 'Black solidarity' in support of inflammatory, homicide-inspiring rhetoric is destructive. I will never embrace anybody, of any race, who makes a living spewing hatred and encouraging the killing of 'white people,' 'black people,' 'cops,' or anyone else."

This is an inspired bit of Quincying. A dragon is created out of whole cloth--here Souljah has "encouraged" the killing of whites--and then slain. In the process, Rowan exacerbates the divisions that produced Souljah's rhetoric in the first place. Forget urban ghetto youth--I want to slug him. In the rest of the column, the self-important Rowan makes a big deal of his friendship with Jackson and how he's going out on a political limb by taking this brave position. On the contrary--politics had nothing to do with it, and neither did race. It's just the indolence of a decayed journalistic hack making an easy buck out of trashing a counterculture.

The best Quincying of the week, however, came from Suzanne Fields, the Sun-Times's antifeminist op-ed columnist. Souljah, she said flatly, was "urging blacks to kill whites" with a "cry for blood." This was to be expected, since "images of murder and violent sex pervade the rap culture," a "subculture of contempt for human values."

Why do kids listen to stuff like rap? Well, because of people like you, Suzanne. That's why, you dishonest and irresponsible twit. You think rap is contemptuous of human values? What's racial demonization and hate mongering in a newspaper column? Both Rowan and Fields might have bothered to read Richard Roeper's column of June 18. Being a reporter, the Conscience of Division Street took the time to get the full quote. "Sister Souljah was not issuing a call to arms," he concluded. "It's a distinction worth making before we bury it under a pile of misinformation."

A sideshow to the Souljah shenanigans is a move by police departments nationally to boycott Time Warner after word got around that Ice-T's new album, a stab at hardcore with a group called Body Count, contained a song called "Cop Killer." I don't think much of the Body Count album, but you should know that Ice-T, along with Public Enemy's Chuck D., is the hard-core rapper who's demonstrated perhaps the most welcome growth: MTV recently cornered him at an AIDS benefit, asking what gave after his early homophobic songs and statements. "I was ignorant," he replied. He's now a somewhat flawed but articulate figure capable of doing much good.

Cops can go ahead and boycott Time Warner, and all its hundreds of worldwide interlocking subdivisions, if they think that it will make their jobs any better. If that doesn't work, they can try something else: maybe clicking their heels together three times, closing their eyes, and wishing real hard. If that doesn't work either, I've got another suggestion: maybe they could stop ruining kids' lives by arresting them for drugs, and stop performing generally as the good little soldiers in our society's disgusting war on poor people. Maybe they could spend a little time--I know this sounds corny--trying to create a better world, a world where a song like "Cop Killer" has no resonance at all. Then some of the millions of people who've bought albums by Ice-T--and much scarier ones by the likes of N.W.A.--might be ready for a different sort of sound track. After all, they're just looking for someone to say something to them about their lives.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin--Photo Reserve.

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