BLONDIE: PANIC OF GIRLS (2011)
1) D-Day; 2) What I Heard; 3) Mother; 4) The End The End; 5) Girlie Girlie; 6) Love Doesn't Frighten Me; 7) Words In My Mouth; 8) Sunday Smile; 9) Wipe Off My Sweat; 10) Le Bleu; 11) China Shoes.
Another chapter in the Book of the Curse of Blondie, and a confusing one — I am still not quite sure whether Panic Of Girls can be called a proper Blondie record. It comes together with a major loss in the Blondie camp: Jim Destri, who left the revamped band soon after The Curse Of Blondie due to personal problems. In his place, we have a totally new, young, trendy, flashy keyboard player (even his name, Matt Katz-Bohen, implies flashy-trendy), so seriously determined to put his own stamp on this band and bring them up to date in the digital age that I would be surprised it did not come to blows with Chris Stein, had I not known that Stein actually approves of the transition just as much as Debbie does.
More importantly, look at the credits: only one song out of eleven is credited exclusively to real Blondie members (Harry / Stein), and, not surprisingly, the album-closing ʽChina Shoesʼ is the only song that does sound like real Blondie — a dark, distorted ballad with that fabulous mix of playfulness and tragedy that used to grace tracks like ʽAngels On The Balconyʼ, though taken here at a slower, more thoughtful tempo and tied to a grumbly-grungy rhythm track that would have made Lou Reed proud.
Most of the other songs, however, try too hard to give Blondie that new look — and not a very good look: Katz-Bohen and producer Jeff Saltzman are helping them to turn into a fashionable, glitzy outfit, relying on stereotypical dance-pop electronics to keep the crowds interested. Sometimes, when the approach is a compromise between the old and the new, the results are not that bad: ʽMotherʼ, co-written by Debbie with early producer Kato Khandwala, has a heart-tugging chorus that overrides all the silly electronics — the song is really a poignant «anti-nostalgic» look at the singer's past ("in the patent leather life I was foolish you were right...") and its frantic tempo and tenseness corresponds perfectly well to the singer's desperation at having missed something important and unrecoverable.
On the other hand, when they go all the way, the results can be drastic — as is the case with ʽWipe Off My Sweatʼ, which is simply the worst song ever released under the Blondie moniker. Trying to imagine that it is just a tongue-in-cheek parody on neo-Latin dance schlock (everything from J-Lo to Shakira) does not alleviate the pain — the synthesized rumba rhythms are vomit-worthy and Debbie sounds like a clinical idiot throughout (rather a normal thing for the garbage pop of today, but up to now, this band has always managed to avoid garbage — why stick their noses right in the middle of the trash heap now?). Other Katz-Bohen creations, like ʽWhat I Heardʼ, are not as directly annoying, perhaps, but I do not need my Blondie sounding like Katy Perry any more than I need them sounding like Shakira.
They do try to conform to lots of things at the same time, so that the reactions are always different: for instance, they cover a recent Beirut tune (ʽSunday Smileʼ), which you will like if you like Beirut, but happen to have an alergy to Zach Condon's bleating voice — not only is the spirit of the brassy original preserved fairly well, but it suddenly reveals an eerie resemblance to the old spirit of ʽThe Tide Is Highʼ (talk about generational links and all that). The cooperation with songwriter / producer / universal artist Barb Morrison results in ʽWords In My Mouthʼ, one of the more guitar-oriented songs on the album, hard to categorize (blues-rock rhythm guitar + adult contemporary synths + aggressive character-assassinating lyrics = ?), though also somewhat hard to memorize due to the lack of outright hooks. And then there's Debbie's fascination with French pop (ʽLe Bleuʼ) — her singing in French has not much improved since the days of ʽDenis Denisʼ, but it does come as a major relief after her singing in Spanish on ʽWipe Off My Sweatʼ.
All in all, this is not an «awful» record as such — inconsistent, yes, and pandering way too much to mainstream pop standards of 2011 (which is way more artistically suicidal than pandering to mainstream pop standards of 1978-1979, as far as my opinion is concerned), but not uninteresting either from a culturological point of view (it is instructive to observe and analyze the many ways in which they try to chameleonize themselves) or from a Blondie-centered point of view, because songs like ʽMotherʼ, ʽWords In My Mouthʼ, and even that obscure old Sophia George cover (ʽGirlie Girlieʼ), dug out from the depths of 1985, are still very much Debbie Harry-esque. So, tread with care, but do not ignore completely — they do not yet hit pop bottom here.