by Jeff Fiedler
Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.
Even if you don’t recognize the name, you’re certainly familiar with something on Rachel Sweet’s impressively long and diverse resume. Long after she stopped making records, Sweet worked extensively in television and film, both serving as a writer and/or producer of countless episodes of sitcoms such as Sports Night, Hot in Cleveland, Dharma & Greg, 2 Broke Girls, and George Lopez and occasionally appearing on-screen, most famously as the star of her own series The Sweet Life (on The Comedy Channel, later to become Comedy Central) and as George Costanza’s cousin Shelly on Seinfeld. She also performed the theme songs for the Nickelodeon sitcom Clarissa Explains It All and the John Waters film Hairspray.
Long before Sweet ever ventured into television, however, the Akron, Ohio native had the good fortune to be discovered and signed in the late ‘70s – as a high schooler, at that – by the ultra-hip British record label Stiff (distributed in the U.S. through Columbia), home at various points to such iconic or critically-acclaimed acts as Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Devo, Madness, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, the Damned, Lene Lovich, Ian Gomm, Mickey Jupp, and Kirsty MacColl. It should go without saying, then, that this is no ordinary teen-pop album, and there’s a definite hint of new-wave to this album that makes this a far hipper album than you might expect from its front and back cover art.
Even if the songs weren’t as great as they are, the cast of players alone would make this a fun record to listen to. Sweet is backed throughout by several members of Ian Dury and the Blockheads (Mickey Gallagher on piano, Norman Watt-Roy on bass, Charley Charles on drums) and several members of Graham Parker and the Rumor (Brinsley Schwarz on guitar and John Earle, Ray Beavis, Chris Gower, and Dick Hanson on horns), while labelmate Lene Lovich helps provide background vocals. As if all of that weren’t enough, all but two of the tracks are produced by – and five of the songs are written by – Liam Sternberg, best known for writing the biggest hit the Bangles ever had, “Walk Like an Egyptian.” (Fun trivia: he’s also the man responsible for writing the theme song to 21 Jump Street.)
Most of the coolest songs here understandably come from Sternberg, particularly the irresistibly bouncy “Who Does Lisa Like?,” which is powered throughout by a truly infectious guitar riff, the new-wave stylings of “Suspended Animation” (which truly sounds like something Pat Benatar would have died to get her hands on early in her career), and the deliciously quirky “It’s So Different Here.”
The catchiest song next to “Who Does Lisa Like?” has to be the incredibly fun “Pin a Medal on Mary,” which was penned especially for Sweet by Will Birch and John Wicks of the criminally underrated British power-pop outfit The Records and has just a slight hint of country to it, particularly due to Sweet’s twangy delivery, which makes it sound uniquely like Brenda Lee taking a stab at cutting a new-wave single.
The first-rate ballad “Sad Song,” first recorded by its writer, the obscure Mark Middler, was covered almost simultaneously by Ellen Foley (whose own version appears on her disc Night Out), but it’s Sweet’s version that stands as the best of the two covers.
Even the covers on here are extremely well-done, be it Sweet’s version of the Peter & Gordon classic “I Go to Pieces,” the Dusty Springfield cover “Stay Awhile,” the Carla Thomas cover “B-A-B-Y,” or the pure country rendition of Elvis Costello’s “Stranger in the House.” It’s a testament to the talents of Sweet and her cast of players that the cover songs all sound quite inspired and never actually feel like filler cuts. It’s an extremely fun and promising debut album and one of the more overlooked discs in the Stiff catalog.
Sweet would go on to record three more albums (Protect the Innocent, …And Then He Kissed Me, and Blame It on Love, only the first of which would similarly be released via Stiff) and would even manage to finally score a Top 40 hit from her third album, thanks to a duet version (performed with Rex Smith, best known for his Top Ten hit “You Take My Breath Away” and a yearlong stint as the host of Solid Gold) of the 1967 Robert Knight classic “Everlasting Love” (which would also go to the Top 40 in 1974 through a cover by Carl Carlton and again in 1992 through a cover by Gloria Estefan). [Sweet’s third album also boasts a pre-Pat Benatar, very Springsteen-flavored version of the '80s classic “Shadows of the Night." For some odd reason, Sweet’s own version was not released as a single, except in the Netherlands, but it's arguably superior to the Pat Benatar version.]
All four of her full-lengths are fine albums and boast their share of strong cuts, but this is arguably the most fun disc in the bunch. Sweet sadly hasn’t released any new music – albums or singles – since 1982, but Rhino Records did put together a fantastic compilation in 1992 entitled Fool Around: The Best of Rachel Sweet that includes the entirety of this album as well as cuts from her later three discs (including “Everlasting Love” and “Shadows of the Night”) and even her theme from Hairspray, so the compilation is highly recommended if you can find it.