BANGLES: SWEETHEART OF THE SUN (2011)
1) Anna Lee (Sweetheart Of The Sun); 2) Under A Cloud; 3) Ball 'n' Chain; 4) I'll Never Be Through With You; 5) Mesmerized; 6) Circles In The Sky; 7) Sweet And Tender Romance; 8) Lay Yourself Down; 9) One Of Two; 10) What A Life; 11) Through Your Eyes; 12) Open My Eyes.
If you liked Doll Revolution more than I did, this slow-on-the-move follow-up will probably enchant you even further. If, however, you were left somewhat unimpressed, then beware — most of the problems are still here, and as the Bangles get older and their marrow gets stiffer (although they still manage to remain visually attractive), chances are that this level is as good as it is ever going to get. Father Time is a pretty hard guy to beat.
Still, at least this time around there is a sense of tasteful purity here, filtering out any production excesses on the level of ʽSomething That You Saidʼ — no attempts whatsoever to appeal to the current mainstream tastes in pop music, easy as it could have been for them to try on the pitiable red-dress / white-horse glamor of Taylor Swift. All the guitar melodies and vocal harmonies bear the time-approved stamp of the Paisley Underground (and, by induction, that of the Byrds-and-Beatles brands of jangle-pop); all the rhythm sections are in strictly manual mode, with no signs of being tampered with in the final production stage; all the lyrics are as far away from modern day problems as possible — in short, just a good sip of that old-timey California sun essence.
It all sounds wonderful: from the opening riffs of ʽAnna Leeʼ (a song that inexplicably shares the name of its imaginary protagonist with an old Beach Boys song, yet borrows its chief chord progression from the overture to Tommy) and right down to the respectfully performed cover of Todd Rundgren's ʽOpen My Eyesʼ, there are no formal complaints to be lodged. The album was carefully planned — some of the songs, according to the liner notes, had a fairly long history of development, and ʽOpen My Eyesʼ was remembered as one of the first songs the girls liked to perform live in the early days — and just as carefully executed, even despite the fact that Michael Steele is no longer in the band, so the songwriting was more or less evenly distributed between Susanna, Vicki, and Debbi.
But the problem of Doll Revolution remains — all of these songs are strictly second-rate, a nostalgia trip for lovers of nostalgia trips, with the words NOSTALGIA TRIP imprinted in large blinking golden letters all over the place. Speaking of which, All Over The Place, too, could certainly be accused of being nostalgic and derivative — but it was conceived and realised at a time when its «unhip» nostalgia clashed so fiercely with the futuristic sheen of mainstream pop that it created an exciting cultural wormhole; plus, the girls were young, fresh, snappy, snazzy, punchy, and aggressive. Sweetheart Of The Sun, in comparison, has very little «punch» to it: a song like ʽBall 'n' Chainʼ, put forward by Debbi, is a rock'n'roll number alright, but its sound is stiff and formulaic, way too clean, polished, and calculated, not to mention utterly derivative, to make the song matter even the slightest bit once it's over.
I will be the first to admit that there are a few numbers here where the harmonies are really, really lovely. Hoffs' ʽUnder A Cloudʼ, for instance, is a steady grower and has her working that «head in a cloud» lovestruck charm to perfection. ʽMesmerizedʼ does not quite match its title, but still comes up with a fairly emotional nursery-rhyme type Brit-pop chorus. And it wouldn't hurt if Vicki's acoustic ballad ʽCircles In The Skyʼ someday managed to replace ʽEternal Flameʼ in the public conscience (well, at least we are allowed to dream). But for every such grower, which still requires about two or three listens to cast its spell, there is one or two inferior copies of it — and the overall monotonousness of the proceedings is inavoidable.
In short, if I am mistaken about the Bangles making age-based concessions (and I would love to be wrong), the only alternative critique would be that they simply go way too far in the «sunny» direction. Perhaps, like most normal people, they have simply settled down, found inner peace, and only sing about whatever it is that they really have in their hearts these days — music for honest, hip, and time-honoured family entertainment. If so, I am very happy for them, and I certainly do not regret spending time on listening to their happy songs of the new millennium. But even John Lennon, in his happiest hour that was so ominously cut short, was not above adding a drop of honestly experienced (or, at least, magnificently simulated) doom and gloom (ʽI'm Losing Youʼ) to his happiest record (Double Fantasy) — so here is one more reminder that the Bangles are not the Beatles. An album can only have that much value if it gives you songwriting competence and emotional fluff instead of songwriting genius and emotional depth, and Sweetheart Of The Sun goes as far as it can go with its limitations, but alas, that just ain't far enough.