Review: Rachel Sweet – B-A-B-Y: The Complete Stiff Recordings 1978 – 1980

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The immediate post-punk era was a decidedly odd one, as it seemed that pretty much anyone could come along and ride the coattails as long as they had skinny jeans and the right haircut. The actual music they played barely seemed to matter, it all got swept up in a mainstream understanding of what ‘punk’ was. Nowhere was this more obvious than with Stiff Records, who got all the punk rock kudos without having to actually sign many punk acts. So their roster of pub rockers, old farts, oddballs and pop stars received a lot more attention than they might have otherwise done. This isn’t a bad thing – the era did at least open the doors for a wide variety of acts who might have struggled to be noticed earlier. And Stiff did bring us a whole bunch of interesting acts, of whom one of the most interesting was Rachel Sweet.

You look back now and winder how Sweet ever made it in those punk-powered days, even if signed to Stiff. For a start, she was American – and a wholesome teenage American at that. And her music was an odd mix of Sixties flavoured pop and country – hardly the sort of thing you’d expect to go well with the NME. Yet she had a degree of minor success with Stiff, who signed her on the back of their Akron compilation album (itself a consolation prize after losing Akron residents Devo to the majors). This new CD collects her two albums together with all her other Stiff recordings. And guess what? It’s often pretty good, if somewhat schizophrenic, thanks to producer / songwriter Liam Sternberg’s input on the first album Fool Around.

Things get off to a strong start with Truckstop Queen, a stomping rocker that could’ve been a Suzi Quatro track. But the album immediately takes a left turn with the skanking Tourist Boys, its plastic Caribbean feel not quite working. This uncomfortable reggae feel is more effectively used later on the more chilled It’s So Different Here, but neither song is especially memorable. Just My Style is a new wave pop song and cynical take on loving a loser, while Who Does Lisa Like? Is a sharp teenage tale with an angular guitar riff running through it.

Wildwood Saloon is a downbeat ballad that allows Sweet to reveal her country side – this might be an English-penned pop ballad, but her performance is pure Americana. As a result, it’s one of the best songs on Fool Around, simply because it’s not trying to hard to be the sound of 1978.

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Sweet is able to belt it out on tracks like Suspended Animation and Cuckoo Clock, which is the closest she gets to punk – at least, power pop punk, complete with a sneering vocal – it’s entertaining teen rebellion, but not what you suspect Sweet was particularly comfortable with. Honky tonk country numbers like Pin a Medal on Mary (a cover from the Stiff back catalogue) seem more her style, and are more effective numbers.

There’s room for humorous eccentricity with Girl with a Synthesiser, a country stomper that mixes old wave and new wave in a fun little number about the rise of the synths putting traditional musicians out of work. I’ll Watch the News is another curiosity, not quite having the hooks it needs to succeed.

Interesting and often impressive as this is, it was not the stuff of hit singles, and Stiff bundled Sweet off for a quick additional session with the Blockheads and The Rumour as a backing band, to record a bunch of covers. The most successful of these was B-A-B-Y, written by Isaac Hayes and a perfect 1960s pop pastiche thanks to a fuller sound than the main album, a belting vocal performance from Sweet and an infectious swing. This is pop music perfection – and ironically now sounds less dated than much of the album. Only slightly less perfect is the cover of Dusty Springfield’s Stay Awhile, which again is a spot-on recreation of a big, brassy 1960s wall of sound. It’s a pity that she didn’t do a full album of this sort of thing (if you’ve heard her theme song from Hairspray, you’ll have an idea of what to expect here). The other covers are the afore-mentioned Pin a Medal on Mary and Elvis Costello’s Stranger in the House, a traditional country number that offers an early hint of the direction that Costello would later move in. This could easily be Polly Parton or Tammy Wynette – and that’s praise indeed.

There’s more country on her cover of Devo’s Be Stiff, originally part of a promo release for the 1978 Be Stiff tour. This is more country pastiche, but still entertaining. The first album winds up with a live recording of Wildwood Saloon, recorded in Canada and originally a B-side.

1979’s Protect the Innocent, produced by Martin Rushent in between The Buzzcocks and the Human League, is a more consistent record than its predecessor, playing to Sweet’s strengths and less interested in sounding ‘modern’.

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It opens with a cover of Del Shannon’s I Go to Pieces, which recaptures the Sixties sound of B-A-B-Y and Stay Awhile, and thankfully, that fuller sound and emphasis on catchy hooks continues throughout. Sad Song is a country pop number, while Tonight is a fast, fun power pop tune, one of four tracks here that Sweet (co) wrote. As for the others she had a hand in –Take Good Care of Me is another impressive rocker, while Lovers Lane is more of a power ballad with a sprinkling of country, and Tonight Ricky is a breathlessly sexy, seductive with a definite jazz lounge music feel that is rather brilliant.

Jealous is a commercial rocker that again brings Suzi Quatro to mind (it must be that mix of hard rock and country twang), while I’ve Got a Reason also has a catchy rock groove. Baby Let’s Play House is pure rockabilly, and Sweet seems to have a natural affinity for this sort of thing. A cover of Graham Parker’s Fool’s Gold is an album highlight, a lively song that is a great synthesis of Sixties and Seventies power pop. Foul Play is a harder rock number – and possibly the closest to the sound of mainstream 1979 populist rock. Spellbound is an impressively catchy, funky number that – somewhat inevitably – also appears here as a ‘disco remix’, which stretches it out for no good reason but doesn’t really add much to it.

There are a couple of … erm… ‘interesting’ covers here – an initially stripped back and sympathetic version of Velvet Underground’s New Age works more effectively than you’d expect and the first half – before it begins to rock out – is oddly reminiscent of This Mortal Coil. It gets a bit overblown towards the end, unfortunately. More amusing – because it’s certainly not meant to be taken seriously – is a perky cover of The Damned’s New Rose.

These two albums are great examples of post punk pop – which was certainly different to pre punk pop. Sweet’s career never really reached the heights is could have, the odd later abberation aside (Everlasting Love, anyone?), but her odd affiliation with Stiff at least left us these two LPs, both of which are well worth (re) aquainting yourself with if you have a love of unpretentious, no nonsense pop that even at the time it was made had a nostalgic flavour about it. The CD comes complete with a booklet tracking Sweet’s Stiff career.

DAVID FLINT

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