Musical Performance: ****½
Sound Quality: *****
Overall Enjoyment: ****½
Matthew Sweet’s first two albums, Inside (1986) and Earth (1989), showed promise, but their production locks them in time. Nor, when he recorded them, had Sweet quite pulled together his influences into the inspired level of songwriting that would make his third album, Girlfriend (1991), so unexpectedly good, and one of the best records of the 1990s.
Fred Maher, one of Earth’s four producers, coproduced Girlfriend with Sweet, and for it they brought back some of the musicians who’d played on Earth, including guitarists Robert Quine and Richard Lloyd. But Girlfriend is tougher and more memorably tuneful. For all its jangly alt-rock guitars, recalling R.E.M. and other late-1980s bands, Girlfriend has the kind of all-encompassing pop knowledge and craftsmanship that made Big Star -- to my ears, a huge influence on this album -- so special. These are 15 great songs fiercely played, with loud guitars that both bite and caress.
Ryan K. Smith remastered Intervention Records’ two-LP reissue of Girlfriend from the original analog master tapes, and he’s given the Beatles-esque “Divine Intervention” more space to let the instruments register more resolutely. The sound is still densely layered, but Ric Menck’s snare drum has a more forceful ring and a longer reach than on CD. Sweet’s bass is more pronounced, each note more cleanly rendered. Lloyd’s guitar solos cut deeply on both formats, but his notes have more edge on the new vinyl, and sustain and blend into each other for a more powerful wall of sound.
Sweet’s lush, multitracked harmony vocals throughout Girlfriend now sound somewhat flat to me on CD compared to the new LP, from which they bloom and expand, letting me better hear their complexity. The arpeggiated guitars in “I’ve Been Waiting” shine more brightly, and, once again, the bass is more powerful and the drums snap with more authority. Quine’s lead guitar in the title track pushes farther out into the room, letting me hear its texture and tone, and the instruments behind it are also easier to hear.
In “Looking at the Sun,” Lloyd Cole’s picking technique on acoustic guitar in the right channel comes through in more detail, and Quine’s solo is fuller and more layered. Greg Leisz’s pedal steel guitar in “Winona” has much more shimmer, the notes coming farther out into the room. Cole’s and Sweet’s acoustic guitars in “Thought I Knew You” are more clearly separated on LP, and the players’ percussive strumming is more pronounced, more rhythmically powerful.
Small touches that enrich the songs come through more solidly. The acoustic guitars in the background of “Don’t Go” hang on more firmly and their chord structures are more audible; on CD, they recede farther and sooner into the background. The low vocal harmonies in “Your Sweet Voice” have more depth and solidity, and Sweet’s guitar solo in this track comes farther out on the soundstage, making its impact and texture more audible. The CD of Girlfriend has always sounded good to me, but this new LP lets the music expand and deepen, with a more solid foundation of low frequencies.
The excellent reproduction of the original cover art and the jacket’s heavyweight cardboard are typical of Intervention reissues, and make them visual and tactile as well as aural pleasures. The beautiful photo of Tuesday Weld in the 1950s that graces the cover looks stunning on the high-gloss, tipped-on printing job by Stoughton Printing, and the LPs themselves, pressed by RTI, were flat and quiet. The set includes three bonus tracks -- “Good Friend,” “Superdeformed,” and “Teenage Female” -- all of which appeared on Girlfriend: The Superdeformed EP (1991).
Intervention has reissued other Matthew Sweet recordings, including Altered Beast (1993) and 100% Fun (1995). They contain some of the best pop music of the ’90s, and if this LP of Girlfriend is any indication, the Intervention editions should sound terrific.
. . . Joseph Taylor