Matthew Sweet

Kimi Ga Suki * Raifu

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Being "Big in Japan" has been a pop music in-joke for years, but few artists have paid as direct a tribute to the country as Matthew Sweet does with his 2003 album, Kimi Ga Suki * Raifu. Released only in Japan, the album is, as Sweet puts in his brief liner notes, dedicated "in gratitude for the many years of love and support you've sent my way." This is no collection of leftovers and B-sides: it is a collection of 12 brand-new songs, written and recorded specifically for this album, with all composition and tracking occurring over one week in January 2002. This makes it unusual in several different ways. First, few artists record an album intended for a specific territory, especially an artist with a cult following as large as Sweet's. Second, Sweet's last two albums -- 1997's Blue Sky on Mars and 1999's In Reverse -- were both overthought (the first to its detriment, the second to its benefit), so it's good to hear him throw out the demoing stage and cut it while it's hot. Third, this record is an unofficial reunion of the Girlfriend-era lineup, featuring Velvet Crush drummer Ric Menck, guitarist Richard Lloyd, and guitarist Greg Leisz, which is something Sweet fans have been waiting nearly a decade to hear. While this is by no means the equal of Girlfriend -- which, after all, was a special record born from a special set of circumstances -- it's still an excellent modern guitar pop album, filled with great hooks and harmonies and irresistible ringing six-strings. What makes it work so well is the constrictions Sweet placed upon himself; by forcing himself to write and record the record in a compressed timespan, he had to rely on his purest skills, letting his music breathe naturally. This doesn't mean that the production is bare-bones, because it's layered with sweet harmonies and guitars, but it does mean that it flows easily and organically, feeling livelier than anything he's done in a decade. That feel, combined with a strong set of songs -- songs that are tight, concise, and never overthought, even when they veer into psychedelia or slow down for a ballad -- make this one of his snappiest, sharpest albums. Its craft becomes more apparent after each spin, yet it retains its fresh feel, which is a difficult thing to pull off. There are no plans for a U.S. release of Kimi Ga Suki * Raifu, which is too bad in one sense, since this is Sweet at his best, but it's likely he never would have made a record quite this good if he didn't follow his Japan-only guidelines. As such, it's something that fans will have to see -- they'll be very, very glad they did.

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