100% Fun (Zoo)
Matthew Sweet

By Mark Clark

Matthew Sweet's material is the closest thing to pop perfection anybody has offered since those Lennon and McCartney fellas went their separate paths. His songs are rich in ear-catching vocal melodies, edgy guitar hooks and uncommonly perceptive lyrics.

Sweet first grabbed critical attention with his pivotal 1992 release, Girlfriend, his first recorded with guitarists Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine. He upped the ante with l994's gutsier, darker Altered Beast. Now he's back with 100% Fun, which seeks to meld the best components of those two records.

For the most part, the new disc is a smashing success. Sweet retains the raw, distorted guitar sounds that toughened up Beast, but turns away from that record's brooding lyrical themes. 100% Fun is almost absurdly chipper, in fact — from its ridiculous title on down.

"Get Older," Sweet s paean to adolescence, captures the spirit of the album perfectly: "Your memories won't slip away/ And you'll be glad, when you get older/ That you were happy just for today."

Producer Brendan O'Brien_ — the hitmaker behind Pearl Jam's Ten, among other monster albums — adds to the fun by spicing several cuts with antiquated instruments, underscoring the retro appeal of Sweet's tunes. O'Brien hauls out a mellotron and even an old electric harpsichord, which gives "Walk Out" a sort of Lemonpipers sound.

O'Brien plays keyboards on most of the album's cuts. Sweet performs on vocals, rhythm guitar and bass, while axmasters Lloyd and Quine again provide a host of mind-bending solos. Drums are provided, alternately, by Ric Menck and Louisville's own Stewart Johnson, of Love Jones fame.

The record opens with its lead single, "Sick of Myself," ironically one of the album's darker moments. Like a throwback to Altered Beast, the song masks self-loathing in lovesick bliss — and under a torrent of soulful licks from Lloyd, 100% Fun offers fewer of the country-tinged ballads that dotted his last few records, with a greater emphasis on uptempo electric numbers. Greg Leisz joins in on pedal steel for "I Almost Forgot," but that's virtually the only twang to be found here.

Other standout tracks include "Super Baby," an old-fashioned baby-you re-the-best number built around a funky guitar riff from Quine; "Walk Out," electric harpsichord and all; "We're the Same," another scintillating love song; and the resplendent "Get Older."

Dull moments are few and far between, but there are a couple — the repetitive "Lost My Mind;" and the album's closer, "Smog Moon," which carries a heavy-handed environmental message. Sweet's batting average (10 for 12) is impressive, but these two missteps seem bigger because 100% Fun, clocking in at 4l minutes, is nearly l5 minutes shorter than Girlfriend or Altered Beast.

But, on balance, 100% Fun remains a remarkable effort from a formidable talent and it only improves with repeated listens.