Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Not The Nightmare I Expected, Sophie B. Hawkins' Live! Bad Kitty Board Mix Is Average.

The Good: Good vocals, Energy, General duration
The Bad: Stories are tiresome and annoying, Could be longer, Weighted toward first album.
The Basics: Better than I first feared it would be, Live! Bad Kitty Board Mix by Sophie B. Hawkins is very much the “live” experience of one of today's most intriguing artists.

For those who do not read my many, many music reviews, I have a long love of the works of Sophie B. Hawkins. In fact, it was through the Sophie B. Hawkins website that I first learned of the website I began reviewing for and thus began my long love of reviewing! So, it might seem odd that it has taken me almost four years to get in the latest album by Sophie B. Hawkins and listen to and review it. The truth is, I was bored with her, having listened to singles like "Right Beside You" (click here for that review) ad nauseam, and I was terrified by how much I would hate the album. The reason for that is very simple. First, I'm not a huge fan of “live” albums and when I saw the tracklist years ago, I saw what I dreaded; Sophie B. Hawkins was once again loaded up an album with songs mostly from her debut album. Having gone to several of her concerts right around the time this album was released, I suspected that and was already bored by it.

But then came my real fear: the album would just be bad. This fear stemmed from hearing the version of “Did We Not Choose Each Other” from the Live! Bad Kitty Board Mix and absolutely hating it. That song tops my list of the Top Ten Pop Songs and no song has come along to wrestle it out of there since I wrote that article. But on Live! Bad Kitty Board Mix, the tempo is pumped up, the vocals are frequently inaudible and it lacks all of the soul the original song has. So, I managed to avoid the album for years.

Two months ago, however, my wife presented me with Live! Bad Kitty Board Mix by Sophie B. Hawkins as one of our random “I love you!” Days. Since then, I've been listening heavily to the album. Arguably the greatest enemy to Sophie B. Hawkins – outside a diva-sized ego – is herself. Of course, her greatest ally is herself as well, so she's something of a contradiction and that is captured well on Live! Bad Kitty Board Mix. So, for example, Hawkins is at her most passionate and incredible on songs like “As I Lay Me Down” where she presents an energetic and then sad rendition which sounds phenomenal and different. But then, later on she begins telling a story during “Feelin’ Good” about her dog taking a poop in a hotel and the story is just terrible to listen to more than once. My point here is, whether the liner notes are true and Hawkins never intended to release this concert performance as an album when it was recorded or not, one would suspect that any musical artist who wants to show off their storytelling prowess might not want to make the permanent recording of describing her dog's diarrhea. That said, Live! Bad Kitty Board Mix is very much a typical “live” recording filled with interstitials which replay poorly and familiar songs presented slightly different from their produced recordings.

The Live! Bad Kitty Board Mix is a two-c.d. set which occupies 52:33 and 58:54 on the two albums. There are eighteen songs on the two discs, only two of which are duplicated. Neither disc is as full as they can be, but they are excellent examples of the works of Sophie B. Hawkins. Hawkins wrote all of the songs, save “I Want You” and “Feelin’ Good” (which appears in two places on the second album). Hawkins plays the djembe and plays piano on various tracks and she provides all of the lead vocals. The recordings were made at the Triple Door club in Seattle and at The Basement in Sydney (for four of the songs). Hawkins’ partner and drummer was the executive producer for the album, so it seems unlikely that Hawkins did not get the sound she wanted out of the mix.

For those who might not have heard of Sophie B. Hawkins, she is the artist behind the hit songs “As I Lay Me Down” and “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover,” who split with Columbia after they had issues with her single “Lose Your Way.” All three of those songs are presented live on this two-disc set and despite being limited to a guitar, bass, keyboard and drums, Hawkins makes wonderfully diverse pop-rock. The songs are largely recognizable to those who have been fans, but she makes the live album feel and sound more full by fleshing it out with improvisations and riffs, some of which work, others less so. So, for example, on “Bare The Weight Of Me,” Hawkins has an additional solo performed so she can light up. That would have been fine, had it not been for Hawkins shouting out about how she wants the light. Conversely, she is passionate and expressive on “Sweetsexywoman” in ways that work.

Vocally, Sophie B. Hawkins is all over the map on Live! Bad Kitty Board Mix. She sings quickly and surprisingly articulately on songs like “Sweetsexywoman” as she is pounding in more words per phrase than seems right. And she goes high and low and more than just the range she exhibits ability in, in terms of register, her real ability seems to be in holding notes with superhuman duration and making them perfectly melodic. Even so, on songs like “Feelin’ Good” she goes into a territory where she is occasionally vocally noisy and that is problematic.

Lyrically, there is nothing overwhelmingly new on Live! Bad Kitty Board Mix. The songs are generally the ones which fans have heard before. Hawkins interjects comments on oil and Bush after “Sweetsexywoman,” tells a crapulescent story on “Feelin’ Good” and generally spices up what those who have not heard have heard before. It is very easy while listening to this two-disc set to feel the energy of the concert, which is what usually makes the best possible live albums. Hawkins largely sings about love, relationships and strife leading through growth on the album. She tells a racy story on the end of “Sweetsexywoman” leading into “Love Your Way.” Rather annoyingly, she takes time getting technical problems fixed before the album may progress to “Lose Your Way” and some of that banter is ridiculous and annoying.

But what listeners do get is some pretty exceptional poetry when Hawkins isn't busy talking over her own lines (or, rather ridiculously, interjecting “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” into her songs). When Hawkins sings “Staying within my constellation / Weighing every intonation / Betraying alienation / I quit sobriety / I joined up with insanity / I want to pull the lever on the hatch I built / Escaping truth and avoiding guilt / So far” (“No Connection”) anyone who has ever felt despair can truly relate and feel the crushing sense of loss.

But more than anything, Hawkins is about passion and on songs like “Lose Your Way,” she is expressive and plays with the emotions of the audience masterfully.

Ultimately, that is what finally got me to give this album a “recommend.” It’s a weak “recommend,” to be sure, but the recordings are different enough to highlight the talents of Sophie B. Hawkins far more than her weaknesses. Those who have never made it to a Sophie B. Hawkins concert will find this is pretty much how her shows go and either be prepared or dissuaded from going as a result. For me, I know I will listen to the album again, but mostly it just made me crave new works from Sophie B. Hawkins and I suspect it will have the same effect on many listeners.

The best tracks are “Lose Your Way” (Disc 1) and “No Connection” (Disc 2), the weak points are “Did We Not Choose Each Other” (Disc 1) and “Feelin’ Good” (the first time on Disc 2).

For other works by strong women, please check out my reviews of:
Siren - Heather Nova
Whatever - Aimee Mann
The Green World - Dar Williams


For other music reviews, please check out my index page by clicking here!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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