Guitars from Mars

POP: Matthew Sweet; LA2, London
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The Independent Culture
By rights, the power-pop merchant Matthew Sweet should need no introduction. Since his breakthrough 1991 album Girlfriend, the nectarous- voiced Nebraskan has been spilling out beautifully balanced melodies punctured with dynamic guitars that form an unmistakable sound (though the spirit of Chilton, Lennon, Parsons and Brian Wilson are handy reference points for the uninitiated).

Back in the States, his albums turn gold, and wherever he plays, there is a `Full House' sign and a smattering of stars on the guest-list.

Although there were members of Silver Sun, 3 Colours Red and others of that breed in the crowd, it was an occasion for the ordinary fan. Most of them hadn't seen him since 1993; one of the reasons Sweet hasn't had much European success is that he has a real problem about getting on a plane. Thankfully, his label stuck him on the QE2 to come and promote his latest album - Blue Sky on Mars.

Given the four-year lapse, it was little surprise that the LA2 was a sold-out sweatbox. Right from the start, when they hurled into "Come to California", it was clear that Sweet and his band of long-standing had come to please. Including frequent introductions that put him up for the title of most unassuming and unpretentious man in rock, he managed to squeeze in 21 songs in just under 90 minutes. The faithful shouted out their favourite songs at every opportunity and while he would have had to play another two hours to satisfy all demands, the set list gave a good reflection of everything since Girlfriend. In so doing, it revealed Sweet's schismatic lyrics that document love's ups and downs, and flit between Loserville and hedonism.

No sooner had the feedback died down from the last song ("Sick of Myself" - the closest he's come to a hit single), than the sound of a thousand pairs of hands clapping had guaranteed an encore. "Missing Time" came first and then the lights faded and Sweet was alone on the piano for a crisp version of the sublimely moving "I Almost Forgot". That would have been a perfect end, but, well, he doesn't come here often, and like four eager-to-please schoolboys, the band bounced back to stretch the usually stringent curfew limits of the LA2 with four upbeat numbers.

It all ended, amidst threats of the plug being pulled, with a swift canter through "Teenage Kicks". That Undertones song, as we're so often told, is one of the perfect pop moments, but the fact is that Sweet also has a stack of his own perfect pop songs. Given that this country has been indulging itself with the much paler Britpop thing over the past few years, it's one big puzzle why this Matthew Sweet guy still often needs an introduction.

Tim Perry