BOSTON — Matthew Sweet drives a 1970 Dodge Challenger - and that says a lot about his music. Powerful, punchy, and loud; it speeds forward while reminding you of the past.
Sweet is currently touring the United States on the wheels of a new album, "100% Fun" (Zoo Entertainment). Music critics love to point out that the title is misleading - many of Sweet's lyrics are wistful, with recurring themes of lost love, infatuation, and insecurity.
But judging from a recent sold-out show in Boston, Sweet is having fun - burning rubber on the road to popularity.
There is good cause. Sweet is the proverbial pop craftsman being welcomed by rock listeners, many of whom have had their fair share of angry, bitter noise. Not that Sweet can't be bitter or noisy, it's just that he's a little more subtle about it.
"100% Fun" is the singer-songwriter's sixth record. Its opener, "Sick of Myself," is enjoying a long stay near the top of the rock charts and is a perfect example of a Sweet song: catchy melody with plenty of pop hooks, strong vocals with well-placed harmonies, and loud guitar. "Fun" has sold 200,000 copies so far.
In July, Sweet will tour in Canada with the Tragically Hip, possibly the most popular rock band in Canada at the moment.
In concert, Sweet and his three-man back-up band opened with "Sick of Myself," instantly pleasing a high-energy crowd. It was Boston's first true summer evening during a weekend of several college graduation ceremonies - appropriate, considering that the college scene has long supported Sweet.
Back in 1990, Sweet came out with his breakthrough album "Girlfriend," establishing himself as a talented songwriter with a clean, clear voice and a penchant for retro sound (a la Beatles).
His follow up, "Altered Beast," (with singles "The Ugly Truth" and "Time Capsule") may not have been as catchy commercially. Musically, however, it paved the way for "Fun," which melds a rougher-edged guitar sound, enhanced no doubt by producer Brendan O'Brien (who has worked with Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots).
On stage, Sweet, a native of Lincoln, Neb., who lives in Los Angeles, sported a casual look: black T-shirt and jeans; his shoulder-length hair parted in the middle and sideburns. He plowed through a 90-minute set with 21 songs mostly from his last three records. Guitarist Ivan Julian and bassist Tony Narsico lent intriguing riffs, layers, and back-up vocals, while drummer Stuart Johnson pounded away.
Except for a muddled version of "We're the Same" and some guitar-tuning problems during "Smog Moon" (quickly remedied), the show was consistently dynamic. Highlights included a grinding "Super Baby," a resounding "Walk Out," and a swirling "Divine Intervention."
Sweet's approach to retro pop with an edge has invited comparisons to Neil Young as well as the Fab Four.
One critic described Sweet as "the missing link between Beatles/Byrds and Nirvana/Sugar." His interest in sci-fi thrillers shows up on a few tracks with haunting organ music.
But Sweet is often overlooked for what might be his strongest talent: the ballad. While he's known for pop songs, his slower songs are so well-crafted and executed that they often survive as the more substantial fare on his records. From "Fun" comes the memorable "I Almost Forgot," a lovely tune that is as sad as it is cynical.
Though at times forlorn, Sweet is not the proverbial angry rocker; he's thoughtful. Pair that with a talent for songwriting, and the result is music that should rev engines for long while.
*Matthew Sweet performs in Sacramento, Calif., June 9; San Juan Capistrano, Calif., June 14; Irvine, Calif., June 17; Los Angeles, June 20. In July, Sweet and his band will open for the Tragically Hip in Canada.