It’s been said that if you remember the 1960s, you weren’t there. They were the years of crazy duds, free love and mind-altering substances, after all, plus much, much more, encompassing everything from JFK’s election and assassination to the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War and “Abraham, Martin & John,” to say nothing of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, the Summer of Love, Monterey Pop, Woodstock and Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for man.” Maybe they weren’t quite the dawning of a new age, but they were monumental times, an important era. There’s no arguing that.
The ‘70s, too, had their fair share of moments, music and fads. Women’s lib, Title IX, est, inflation, wage-and-price controls (instituted by a Republican president, no less), gas shortages, Watergate, disco and Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech pushed and pulled the populace like Play-Doh. In many ways, the decade can be summed up by three r’s: refinement, as the excesses of the 1960s were reined in; (mood) rings, as silly fads proliferated; and rock, which shattered into fragments, from singer-songwriter to progressive to heavy metal to adult contemporary. At the same time, disco drove its danceable beat through the brain like a dull machete and punk rock turned electric guitars into glass shards aimed at the heart.
Or not. Those are, admittedly, imperfect summaries of both decades; condensing 20 years into two paragraphs is impossible. The overall takeaway, however, is this: there were good times, bad times and a lot of in-betweens. I’ve borrowed this line before, as it’s one of the all-time best, but as Paul Simon sang in “The Boy in the Bubble,” “every generation throws a hero up the pop charts.” Every generation also has its fair share of ups and downs, hit movies, popular books, silly love songs, fashions and hairstyles.
The 1980s were no different. The decade is often derided as an era of shoulder pads, skinny ties and big hair – even by those of us who experienced them firsthand. But, really, it was simply a transitional time. As the final waves of the baby-boom generation receded into adulthood and adult responsibilities, the first ripples of Generation X appeared. MTV, Miami Vice, Michael Jackson and Madonna held sway, as did new wave, college rock and, by decade’s end, the relatively new genre of hip hop. AM was an anachronism by then and FM’s free-form days were, for the most part, a distant memory. Sure, there was lame music around (name me an era when there wasn’t), but good and great songs and albums also abounded. Often, they just weren’t easily found.
Which is a roundabout, rather wordy lead-in to my Album of the Year for 2013 (drumroll, please): Under the Covers Vol. 3 by Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs. It conjures the spirit of the ‘80s to a T – for good reason. It is the ‘80s.
If you’re unaware, the album series – which began in 2006 – tackles a different decade each time out. Volume 1 featured songs from the 1960s, Volume 2 songs from the ‘70s and this one songs from the Age of Reagan. The covers aren’t re-imaginings of the originals, but faithful renditions – sonic celebrations of the source material, if you will. In lesser hands and voices, the end result could well teeter into karaoke territory, but Sweet’s and Hoffs’ obvious love and respect for the songs lifts the sets into another realm – and none of the realms are quite as high as the one achieved on Volume 3.
Perhaps it’s that they’re covering songs from their contemporaries – Hoffs, of course, was and still is in the Bangles, one of the top bands of the ‘80s; and though he didn’t break through until 1991 with Girlfriend and “Winona,” for a time Sweet was part of the same Athens, Ga., music scene as R.E.M. Or maybe it’s the song selection. Volume 1 was tight, a true delight, but some of the picks seemed obvious; and the deluxe/bonus track-laden version of Volume 2 suffered from the audio equivalent of suburban sprawl – it went on and on and on. Don’t get me wrong, each features moments of splendor, but neither is a five-star affair (though Volume 1 comes close). Volume 3, however, hits the mark from the get-go with “Sitting Still,” the b-side to R.E.M.’s first single (“Radio Free Europe”), and doesn’t let up, dishing out college-rock classics side-by-side with MTV staples – and a few cool detours into classic rock.
I’ll eschew a track-by-track analysis, but will point out Hoffs’ sassy take on Elvis Costello’s “Girls Talk” (which was a hit for Dave Edmunds as well as a highlight of Linda Ronstadt’s 1980 Mad Love album); the Kirsty MacColl-penned Tracey Ullman hit “They Don’t Know,” which contains what may well be Hoffs’ best-ever vocal; and her sultry reading of Roxy Music’s “More Than This,” which does Bryan Ferry proud. Sweet, too, has moments both sublime and stupendous – Tom Petty’s ”Free Fallin’,” the English Beat’s “ Save It For Later” and the Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now,” for example. And just as Volume 2 hid a few gems in its deluxe/bonus track version, the same’s true here – Sweet shines on Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U” and the Clash’s “Train in Vain.”
For me, though, nothing beats their take on the Go-Go’s: “Our Lips Are Sealed” is as flat-out fun here as when Belinda Carlisle & Co. performed it at the Keswick over the summer – my favorite concert of the year, I should add. (It makes me wish the Bangles and Go-Go’s would tour together as the Bang-Go’s.) It’s an instant-smile song. In fact, the same’s true for Volume 3 as a whole. No matter your mood, you’ll be feeling happy (or happier) by the time it’s done.
Which is likely why it beat out many other excellent sets for my Album of the Year. Diane Birch’s Speak a Little Louder would be my first runner-up, followed by Minor Alps’ self-titled set, Juliana Hatfield’s Wild Animals, Natalie Maines’ Mother, Patty Griffin’s American Kid and others that I’ll likely be kicking myself for forgetting to mention. They each have something to offer, but none come close to capturing the sheer magic of Sweet’s and Hoffs’ voices blending together as one – harmonies from heaven, they are.