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Aging Gracefully

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Matthew Sweet,

Murmurs

Chicago Theatre, February 17

It's a rock 'n' roll truism that performers make their best music early in their careers. Allegedly that's when the energy, enthusiasm, and inventiveness peak. It's taken for granted that musicians lose their edge after the first few records and begin the sometimes abrupt slide into rote songcraft and artistic decrepitude.

Matthew Sweet's career should put that platitude to rest. Sweet began recording in the early 80s working out of Athens, Georgia, with the obscure bands Oh-OK and Buzz of Delight. He launched his solo career in 1986 with the release of Inside, a somewhat catchy but one-dimensional stab at synth pop. That was followed by the languid and equally middling Earth in 1989. Both records demonstrated Sweet's ability to pen a decent hook, but there was more cuteness and coyness than potency to the music. At the time it seemed that Sweet would amount to little more than a pleasant rock 'n' roll footnote.

But in 1991 Sweet released Girlfriend, a record packed with striking melodies, unexpectedly thoughtful lyrics, and prickly guitar playing. The mild-mannered pop of the first two records had given way to an impressively diverse collection of songs that were often as vigorous and dynamic as they were tuneful. At a time when conventional wisdom suggested that his talent should have been fading, Sweet had blossomed. Altered Beast, released in 1993, generally matched the quality of its predecessor while upping the distortion and power chords.

Girlfriend and Altered Beast bristle with an intensity that's normally the signature of a performer's earliest efforts. The song "Girlfriend" alone simmers with more passion than Inside and Earth combined, and tunes like "Evangeline," "Holy War," and "In Too Deep" rely on vibrant guitar hooks where Sweet once deployed brittle melodies. And the records' intensity is accented by some exceptional musicianship. Sweet utilizes distinctive sidemen whose styles contrast with his own. The warped, angular guitar solos of ex-Television band member Richard Lloyd and ex-Voidoid/Lou Reed band mate Robert Quine uniquely and vividly underscore the wistfulness and anguish in many of his songs.

Avoiding teenage petulance and moon-June-spoon romantic poesy, Sweet's songs offer a clear-eyed and not particularly inspiring look at relationships and the fleeting nature of existence. "Don't Go," from Girlfriend, starts off like a pop song staple with a plea to a departing lover: "Don't go / Don't let my love drive you away / There's so much I have left to say / Don't go." Later in the song, when Sweet sings "Don't go / I can't watch them put you in the ground / Don't go," what had seemed like a timeworn lyrical conceit is transformed into a depiction of unhinged despair. The last song on Girlfriend, "Nothing Lasts," concisely sums up Sweet's disquieting lyrical preoccupations: "If I could locate a God above / And you only wanted to be loved / Then I'd try to hang on to the past / But you know that nothing lasts."

Sweet has defied artistic inertia not only by becoming a better songwriter, but by developing into a less mannered one as well. At the Chicago Theatre he demonstrated that he is sustaining the energy and distinctive musicianship of his last two albums. It was a loud, heavy guitar bash from start to finish, and it emphasized how far Sweet has evolved from his fragile pop music of the 80s. He unleashed bristling, mostly up-tempo songs culled from Girlfriend, Altered Beast, and his upcoming record 100% Fun and avoided ballads and mid-tempo material, except for "Someone to Pull the Trigger." As a result, there were no tender interludes or poignant moments. Sweet has become multifaceted enough to make an engaging hour-and-a-half concert using only his most propulsive songs.

The band--guitarist Lloyd, bassist Tony Marsico, and perpetually blissed-out Love Jones drummer Stuart Johnson--was tight, energetic, and crisp, and Lloyd's craggy, often discordant leads provided a welcome edge to the often soaring tunefulness of Sweet's songs.

Unlike many performers, Sweet let his songs rather than his personality carry the show. For most of it he hovered undemonstratively around the microphone. The punchy cynicism of "Ugly Truth" was underscored by its curt, biting phrases. Likewise the rapidly descending minor-key melody of "Devil With the Green Eyes" conveyed the song's despondency more vividly than self-indulgent histrionics would have. And that's the mark of real songwriting talent: the ability to create music that transmits a feeling without the necessity of an overwrought performance.

The opening act, the Murmurs, was less successful. Aided only by acoustic guitars, the duo opened the show with a series of frantically strummed, similar-sounding tunes. Their music was somewhat pleasant, but their songwriting seemed underdeveloped. Their hearts were in the right place--there were quiet songs about domestic violence and loneliness--but the Murmurs confuse earnestness with inspiration. Worthy topics don't automatically make great songs, and the Murmurs haven't learned to channel intensity into distinctive songs. Instead, their emotions dragged along an immature artistry like a pack of frenzied chihuahuas pulling a clumsily packed dogsled. The one truly awful point in their show was its finale: a painfully ludicrous cover of the Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit." Combining frenzied gesturing and a bizarrely melodramatic delivery by one of the band members, the performance was like watching Grace Slick do a Kabuki version of Carrie.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Craig Volpe.

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