Music from Mars
Blue Sky on Mars
A couple weeks ago I was in a local record store and Steve, a friend of mine (and the store manager) said that Blue Sky on Mars was the best pop album of the year. At the time, I couldn't agree or disagree — I hadn't heard it yet (though I had admired the Viking II Lander photo that graces its cover). But for the past 10 days I've been allowing its bright rock and poignant ballads to threaten the continued health of my car stereo speakers.
It's premature to call this the best pop album of the year. But it is pretty darn good. Sweet has pulled out all the stops in the recording of this, his sixth disc. Blue Sky on Mars is full of glossy piano and string backgrounds, shimmering vocal harmonies, and of course, that organic, crunchy throwback guitar sound that landed "I've Been Waiting" and "Divine Intervention" from Girlfriend all over the radio a half dozen years ago. Sweet also lives up to his name in the melody and hooks department on Blue Sky on Mars (not that any of his records have been very shy about that). Opening with the infectious, bubbling riff of "Come to California," (one of his catchiest tracks ever) he then moves into the Beach Boys-clean "why fight it" love song of "Back to You":
"I'll tell you anything
but what is true
no sense in giving in
I'm coming back to you."
"Hollow" moves in a darker, moodier landscape than much of the CD, with a slinky bassline and a musically spare verse before kicking in with its cautionary chorus: "an evil bigger than you could know/has taken root."
"Behind The Smile" takes a place beside the best of Girlfriend's confessional lyrics. Atop a bouncing, Badfinger "Baby Blue"-inspired guitar riff Sweet apologizes for something every friend has been guilty of at one time or anther:
"I haven't been a good friend
for a long long time
I haven't been a good friend
while you've been mine."
"Until You Break," a song about "wearing down" the pride of a possible lover, is also reminiscient of Girlfriend, with its quiet acoustic guitar strums, decorative piano and harmony-rich meandering vocals.
"Over It" kicks Blue Sky out of the melancholy of "Until You Break" with a grin and and wild minute and a half of tasty electric guitar.
There's a bit of Lindsay Buckingham-inspired guitar on "Into Your Drug" (along with a cowbell and some other spacey sound effects) and some more Badfinger nodding in the descending riff of "Make Believe." It all closes out with three minutes of gorgeous pop in "Missing Time," a warm love affair of blue guitar, softly chorded piano and Sweet's smoothest vocals.
Nostalgic while staying current, bursting with pop but avoiding the indigestion of schmaltz, this disc will certainly top many people's "best of the year" lists in 1997. Matthew Sweet has yet to make a bad album, but Blue Sky on Mars is without a doubt one of his best.
Live From Mars
I'm not sure what McGuinn's connection to the cast of "Mystery Science Theatre 3000" is (the CD cover has pictures of both in front of a depiction of Mars) but Live from Mars is a very, well, earthy album. McGuinn is best known for his work with The Byrds, and Live From Mars is a bare bones solo, song-by-song chronicle of his steps to get to that band. Recorded live with just McGuinn, his guitar, some anecdotes and a Minneapolis audience, this is a very personal folk record that's more fascinating for the history McGuinn covers than the actual performance.
The disc opens with "Heartbreat Hotel,"which McGuinn says was the first pop song he heard that "moved" him. From there he chronicles his discovery (through a guitar teacher) of Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music, his stint with the Chad Mitchell Trio and his time as a songwriter in Bobby Darin's NY stable. From there he talks of his move to California to perform "folk songs with a Beatlebeat" and his subsequent meeting of David Crosby and formation of The Byrds.
McGuinn plays an acoustic guitar version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" as Bob Dylan's original demo sounded, as well as the altered electric version that put The Byrds on the map. The Byrds' "Eight Miles High" and "So You Want To Be A Rock 'n' Roll Star" appear as well.
The one problem with the album (aside from some over-echoey acoustics on a couple tracks) is that McGuinn's story just ...ends. He details his life in the music business up to the point of The Byrds' biggest success, and then simply stops, leaving the average listener wondering "well, what have you done for the past 25 years?
Two new bonus studio tracks recorded with The Jayhawks close the disc out. The best of these is "May The Road Rise," a gentle hymn based on the old Irish prayer "may the road rise to meet you."