Under the Covers  

April 30, 2006


In 1983, a group of Los Angeles musicians collectively dubbed "the Paisley Underground" -- an evocative description based on their fondness for '60s psychedelic sounds and fashions, though it was a tag they'd come to dislike as much as the rockers in Seattle a decade later would hate "grunge" -- joined together to cover some of the artists they loved most, including Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield and Big Star, on a memorable album called "Rainy Day."

Among those who participated in this indie-rock hootenanny were members of the Rain Parade, the Dream Syndicate and the Three O'Clock, all of whom remain cult heroes, though another group, the Bangles, actually went on to considerable success. The gorgeous vocals of Bangles leader Susanna Hoffs are one of the biggest charms on "Rainy Day," and now, more than two decades later, Hoffs has lent her voice to another collaborative covers album, the new "Under the Covers Vol. 1."

The new disc finds her and power-pop maestro Matthew Sweet paying homage to the Beatles ("And Your Bird Can Sing"), the Beach Boys ("The Warmth of the Sun"), Dylan ("It's All Over Now, Baby Blue"), Love ("Alone Again Or"), the Mamas and the Papas ("Monday, Monday") and Neil Young ("Cinnamon Girl"), among others.

Along with their '60s predecessors, the Paisley Underground bands were one of the influences that prompted Sweet to make albums of his own -- including 1991's classic "Girlfriend" -- and he says he always loved the "Rainy Day" album in particular. "I remember really fixating on Sue's voice on that record and thinking, 'Wow!' I really love that Dylan song 'I'll Keep It With Mine,' and she sang on it. That was always in my mind and when I got to know her later on, and I'd say to her, 'If you want to do anything, I'd love to produce you!' So that seed was always there."

Hoffs remembers it, too. "I called Matthew up about two years ago to sing with the Bangles one night at [the L.A. club] McCabes -- we were doing a fund-raiser -- and he mentioned to me during a break in rehearsal that he always wanted to produce a solo record for me," Hoffs adds. "He was thinking about his early days of listening to the 'Rainy Day' record, and that's how he first heard me.

"When we decided to do this covers album, the thing that was so bizarre was that the first thing he said was, 'Well, what are your ideas about songs?' And I said, "What about 'She May Call You Up' by the Left Banke?' And he just went, 'That is so weird! That's the first one on my list!' He actually had a little handwritten list, as did I. We had both listed a ton of songs, and it was really fun trying them out. When you're obsessed with music from that time anyway, it's just so much fun to try and play those songs."

That sense of enthusiasm is palpable throughout "Under the Covers," which Hoffs and Sweet recorded at his L.A. home studio with help from talented accompanists such as drummer Rick Menck, legendary Beach Boys collaborator Van Dyke Parks and guitarists Ivan Julian, Greg Leisz and Richard Lloyd. While the two singers are clearly fans of the songs they tackled, they didn't hesitate to add their own unique stamp, and that sense of immediacy and inspiration, combined with a very vital and alive production, marks the album as more than a mere exercise in nostalgia.

"The challenge of living up to these songs was fantastic, special and magical," Hoffs says. "Many of the originals were done very quickly using what we would think of now as very primitive equipment, but there is so much heart, melody, sophistication and arrangement genius."

"When you say the album sounds 'vital and alive,' that's really what we were going after," Sweet says. "In some ways, we were pretty traditional about how we did everything, because we really wanted to capture what made these songs good in the first place, which is very often that sense of being 'vital and alive.' But I think it's worth stressing that it wasn't like we were fearing this giant mantle of, 'Oh my God, we're covering these amazing things and everyone is going to judge us.' We were sort of blissfully ignoring that and doing our own little thing."

Sweet, 41, and Hoffs, a 47-year-old mother of two with her husband, director Jay Roach, have both experienced the highs and lows of the music business, rising from the independent underground to mainstream success -- to a point where they are once again recording for the indies. (The Bangles' last new album, 2000's "Doll Revolution," was issued by Koch; Sweet's 2004 solo disc "Living Things" came out on RACM, and "Under the Covers" was released by Shout Factory.)

But both seem content with their place on the current music scene, appreciative of their enduring followings and no longer concerned about the pressures of pop stardom, and that vibe is the final ingredient that makes "Under the Covers" so much fun.

"I don't really know what I'm going to do with my next [solo] record -- if I need a label at all," Sweet says. "A couple of years ago, when we were promoting that Thorns record that I made with Pete Droge and Shawn Mullins, it was a thing where Columbia begged us to make this record, and we worked really, really hard and sold a couple of hundred thousand copies. But that was failure to everybody at the company, and it all just seems wrong."

Adds Hoffs: "Having been there and done that with all of the ways that records are put out and the kind of huge marketing machine that you go through ... Well, we've seen it all, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, and this time we just wanted to make this music for fun. We just wanted to make a record that we love, and we did, and I hope that everybody can hear that."