If you’ve ever been where Joey Sweeney lives, everything he sings might sound different.
He walked us to his apartment after the first time I played Philadelphia — a show that was part of the first tour I had ever been on with a band, probably to a whopping 12 in the audience.
We stayed up most of the night under the high ceilings of his place, drinking Yuengling beer and talking about music, listening to his jukebox (stacked with a pristine collection of 45s) and playing with his obnoxiously loving dog. We’d been on tour, sleeping on cat-haired floors for two weeks, and by the time I fell asleep (slightly drunk on his soft couch with one of his pillows, in front of a hand-picked cult classic) the place seemed to have every forgotten detail of heaven.
All it takes to recapture that night is a track from The Trouble With Sweeney’s second full-length record, Dear Life. Sweeney sings with a sandpaper voice and disarming sincerity about the girl he married: “She’s right here tonight/She lives on West Athens Avenue/with me and my dog Lincoln too.”
The line is delivered with such pure nostalgia that anyone could imagine the intimate environment which inspired it — whether or not they had the Cliffs Notes of a one-night stay at his place. It’s the kind of songwriting that is simultaneously grand and simple, having the power to make you think about something as common as the street in front of your house as an object that possesses an uncommonly meaningful, near-poetic potency.
“People can complain if they want to about the songs of the ’60s or ’70s being too simple and ‘oh baby,’” Sweeney says via phone from his memorable apartment. “But things aren’t really that much different now. There aren’t many people writing songs with a literary ear. And the people that are, everyone already knows about.”
That’s probably not true. Plays Karen and Others, the latest EP from Sweeney’s aptly named outfit, is a set of cinematic character sketches that are every bit as literary as they are melodic — and, outside of a handful of adoring music writers and scattered aficionados, not that many people know about it. Where brief references to Being There-era Wilco, Nick Drake and Belle & Sebastian can help put The Trouble with Sweeney into context, to know where the band is truly coming from it might be better to spend time at arty film screenings.
“This might sound really pretentious, but I sort of realized that, at one point a year or two ago, I stopped listening to other music for inspiration and started watching movies,” Sweeney says. “I got more out of it. Not that I was lifting things out of movies, but with books and movies I was getting things that I wasn’t getting from other rock songs. I started watching ridiculous French and British movies from the ’60’s. I think also stuff like the Paul Thomas Anderson movies (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) — in these movies I was getting more imagery that I could chew on and recycle in my own way. So there was more sexual intrigue in the songs and more nebulous relationship stuff that smacks more of reality.”
The poignant reality of country-touched tunes such as “Karen” and “Lovers Get Results” are perfect examples of Sweeney’s ability to present stories that are framed in cinematic details. “Waiting for Gary,” a kind of Jobim-meets-Tweedy bossa-nova ballad, uses spoken text from French author André Gide and is ready-made for a darkened movie house.
On “Karen” Sweeney sings in the voice of Karen’s admirer, “All day I work in the museum shop/selling baseball cards of famous art/I know I’m cut out for something more than this.” At that moment it’s not hard to imagine Plays Karen and Others jumping from stereo to silver screen. It would be a film about souvenir shop-clerks and waitresses and divorcées that we all have known, telling stories in places we have all firstname.lastname@example.org