Once upon a time Matthew Sweet made an album called Girlfriend, and we saw that it was good: the precise midpoint between studio-guy musical fussiness and radio-fan pop tunefulness, the kind of record you can blast for the choruses and imbibe through headphones for the guitar solos. Sweet's done loads of good work since Girlfriend's 1991 release--seek out '99's underrated In Reverse for some sumptuous post-Spector beauty, or last year's harmony-heavy CD with the Thorns--but he's never again captured that disc's resplendent, spontaneous melancholy. So it goes with Living Things, an effort full of indelible melodies, great playing and noble intentions, yet without the blood-pumping charge necessary for this kind of record-collector retro-pop to get over these days. White-haired West Coast weirdo Van Dyke Parks juices "Tomorrow" with a helping of funhouse-mirror accordion and packs "Push the Feelings" with vintage-organ ooze, while Pete Phillips' surprisingly unhinged guitar skronk in "Cats vs. Dogs" tastily complements the tune's jaunty Disney-score vibe. And you'll never hear me complain about someone as sweet as Sweet singing, "Fuck the world around," over a bouncy major-key groove Shania Twain could dig. But Living Things never feels like a revelation--just one more piece of finery from a master craftsman.
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