By 1976, Sweet had left their bubblegum past as a single-driven act in the U.K. and set their sights on cracking the American market as hard-rocking arena act. They did plenty of touring in the U.S. and got an initial push from their new American label, Capitol Records, but they never quite crossed over in the way they hoped. The problem might have been that Sweet did too many things at once: their albums from 1976 on mixed proto-metal with pop hooks and progressive leanings. ’70s American radio was ready to embrace a lot of different sounds but wasn’t equipped to handle a single band that produced a lot of different sounds.
On that tip, the albums covered in this installment of Catalog Crawl show that Sweet had a stylistic restlessness that worked against them. For example, consider how different the metallic Give Us A Wink sounds from the sleek prog-tinged pop of Level Headed and then marvel at the fact that those albums are only separated by two years. However, these are all worth listening to if you love the experimental side of ’70s commercial rock and contain some of Sweet’s finest songs outside their string of hit singles. In fact, a lot of the band’s fans would tell you this lineup includes their all-time best album…
GIVE US A WINK (1976): the band finally gets full control of songwriting and production – and record their finest album. It’s their toughest sounding outing, including a catalog-best drum sound for Tucker, and boasts some killer proto-metal: “Cockroach” is a groupie lust ode that layers Scott’s most molten riffs over a stomping groove and “Keep It In” is a tightly-wound rollercoaster that rockets through a landscape of over-the-top harmonies, explosive riffs and killer drum fills. The group also tries out some experiments, including a Zeppelin-esque heavy funk jam (“Healer”), pomp rock synths married to stomping rock (“The Lies In Your Eyes”) and a loose-limbed midtempo jam with jazz keyboard solos (“4th Of July”), managing to stick the landing each time. They even write a killer single in “Action,” where the band devises Chinn/Chapman-worthy hooks but delivers them with a heft that metalheads can groove to. The result is well-crafted yet adventurous, a perfect slab of glammy hard rock. Deep cut gem: “White Mice,” a gloriously eccentric speed-rocker with stratospheric harmonies that even Queen wouldn’t dare to attempt.
OFF THE RECORD (1977): this splits the difference between Give Us A Wink and its predecessors, mixing proto-metal with crafty, progressive-leaning pop numbers aimed at the singles charts plus a few experiments. The heavy stuff has cleaner production than last time without blunting the guitars: the morning after regret of “Midnight To Daylight” is built on a relentless cruncher of a riff, “Windy City” plays like a Sabbath-esque stomper dolled up with vocal harmonies and the fast-riffing frenzy of “She Gimme Lovin'” anticipates the speedier hard rock of the ’80s. On the pop side, “Fever Of Love” stacks hooks and harmonies atop a jittery rhythm and “Lost Angels” underpins its array of pomp synths and vocal layers with another surprisingly heavy riff. “Funk It Up” is a disco send-up that probably should have been saved for a b-side but they make up for it with “Laura Lee,” a cool experiment that mixes English folk verses a la Led Zeppelin with an intense power ballad chorus. The result didn’t produce hits but it’s full of ideas and handsomely produced.
LEVEL HEADED (1978): the band throws off hard rock entirely to recast themselves as purveyors of continental pop with the occasional pomp-rock flourish. Fans of the previous albums might be shocked by the MOR orchestrated balladry of “Dream On” or the Eurovision-friendly chanson homage “Lettres D’Amour” but it produced one of the band’s best hits in “Love Is Like Oxygen,” a fusion of arena rock and E.L.O.-styled pomp (note: those used to the hit single edit might be surprised by how the epic album version incorporates a classical-style keyboard interlude and a jazz-funk jam outro). Elsewhere, slick pop songwriting is fused with other genres: “Fountain” and “Anthem No. 1 (Lady Of The Lake” both incorporate prog and English folk elements while “Strong Love” ventures into disco territory with a grooving backbeat and horn charts. If that’s not enough, “California Nights” evokes West Coast soft rock and “Air On A Tape Loop” is an ambitious, Pink Floyd-esque instrumental closer. The result didn’t bring mainstream acceptance but it rates as a diverse, skillfully-crafted listen for pop addicts with eclectic tastes.