The cover of Matthew Sweet's new album, "100% Fun," is a photo of the singer as a cute 10-year-old, captured listening to records in his boyhood home in Lincoln, Neb. Bulky stereo headphones encase his ears, and a wide, toothy, angelic smile lights up his face.
So why is this kid grinning?
Maybe he has had a sudden, psychic vision of his future. He is sitting there in 1974, a time when the rock 'n' roll planet has come to be ruled by the bellowing mastodons of arena rock. The likes of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Aerosmith have thrown the Beatles' and Byrds' pure-pop tradition of sweet harmonies and soaring melodies into the shadows.
Sixties-pop's most promising American heir, Big Star, is dying in its crib of failure to thrive. Pete Ham, the primary singer of Britain's Badfinger, which had carried the Beatles' style into the '70s, will soon die an all-too-literal death, by his own hand. But there is little Matthew, beaming because he has looked into the future and knows that by 30 he will have earned one gold record, with good prospects for another, all by playing rock that breathes life into the commercially dormant '60s tradition.
Being a buff of sci-fi films and movie monsters, the 10-year-old Sweet might have enjoyed such fanciful speculation. But the grown-up Sweet will tell you that the kid in the picture wasn't thinking about rocking at all; that's a "King Kong" soundtrack album in his lap, not a Beatles, Byrds, Big Star or Badfinger record.
No, Sweet said over the phone last week from a hotel in San Jose, he didn't choose the picture because it showed little Matthew having a life-changing musical epiphany; he chose it because Big Matthew tends to be shy about putting his matured mug on album covers.
"It's just that I look so happy [in the childhood photo], and I hate having my picture taken [as an adult]. I thought, 'There's an unguarded moment they'll never get now.' "
The part of the above speculation, however, about Sweet making a strong go of tradition-minded pure-pop after it had been largely written off as a commercial force is indeed factual. His 1991 breakthrough album, "Girlfriend," recently passed the gold sales mark of 500,000. While its 1993 follow-up, "Altered Beast," has sold only about half as well, a new release, "100% Fun," features some of Sweet's most splendid pop craft and has gotten off to a good commercial start: The video for "Sick of Myself" is getting lots of MTV play, and the album is rising on the charts (it was at No. 76 last week) as it nears 200,000 sales.
Sweet will preside over his own pure-pop universe as he headlines Wednesday at the Coach House, then step into a den dominated by some of today's new breed of bellowing arena mastodons as he performs Saturday on the punk and hard rock-oriented KROQ Weenie Roast bill at Irvine Meadows.
"Obviously I don't exactly fit into that category, so it's slightly strange," said Sweet, who has played recently on several similar festival bills sponsored by punk-leaning modern rock radio stations. "We're not without our punkier aspects, either, in a live situation, so I don't think it's that much of a stretch. A lot of the [new punk] bands blur together for me, and I'm thinking it's [going to be] a passing fad, but I'm not naming names," he added with a chuckle.
While Sweet is no bellower or screamer, his music does have ballast that keeps his high-reaching melodies and sometimes fragile and yearning tone from sounding sugary or fey. Despite his naturally reedy voice, Sweet can sing from his gut when he needs to, as he proved on the dark, caustic songs that dominated "Altered Beast." And if his song craft and harmony singing are rooted in Beatles and Byrds pure-pop, the tough, jagged guitar sound on his albums harks back to the mid-'70s New York rock underground of Television and Richard Hell & the Voidoids, two bands that influenced the first wave of English punk.
Sweet's primary guitar sidekicks on tour and in the studio have been Television alumnus Richard Lloyd and two former Voidoids, Robert Quine and Ivan Julian (Julian is in Sweet's current touring band, along with bassist Tony Marsico and drummer Stuart Johnson). Sweet also has made regular studio use of Greg Leisz, the Fullerton-raised pedal steel guitar ace who joined Sweet for his 1993 show at the Coach House.
On "Altered Beast," Sweet said, "I wanted to go off the edge and do something that was more extreme. I think it was harder for people to get into, but when I made it I didn't care what anybody thought. I felt it was a renegade kind of record, and was surprised the record company thought it had so much potential. I got some of my most satisfying reviews, but it was a much murkier, much weirder record than 'Girlfriend.' "
As he prepared to record again, Sweet said, "I was listening to the Byrds a lot, and I thought, 'Maybe I'll make a pop record--not as stylized a record as "Girlfriend," but run with the pop angle.' "
The new album's title started as a joke.