Saturday, April 30, 2011

Sophie B.'s Solid Start: Tongues And Tails Holds Up Over The Years!

The Good: Musically diverse, Lyrically superlative, Vocally impressive
The Bad: Underdeveloped sound
The Basics: This is a good investment, especially if you like "Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover;" a solid album overall, rough on some tracks!

In 1992, Columbia records presented Sophie B. Hawkins and Tongues And Tails after a significant bidding process. It was worth it. Sophie's debut album is a proud showcase of diversity and the album has a quality to it that has not been matched in her following attempts. As one of the more daring voices in the pop-rock field in the 1990s, Hawkins struggled to find a mainstream audience, despite her hit song from this album, "Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover." In fact, she continued to struggle when she tried to sell her next album on the strength of "Right Beside You" (reviewed here!) and struggles to this day to get noticed with albums like Live! The Bad Kitty Board Mix (reviewed here!).

Tongues And Tails stands out as something different. What separates it at first from other pop-rock albums is the diversity of the instruments being used on the tracks. Consider "Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover;" it is a keyboard-driven pop-rock song that has more of an orchestral sound to its opening. The production elements enhance the crescendo that opens the track, sucking the listener in and when Sophie begins to sing, "That old dog has chained you up all right . . ." her voice is amplified by the contrast to the instrumentals, instantly focusing the listener on her vocals. It is a clever hook, but more than a cheap technique, it fits the song. "Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover" is an incredibly poetic and opaque song. The instrumentals and the techniques used to spotlight the vocals add a murky quality to the song that makes it intriguing to the ear.

Hawkins continues the trend of accenting her lyrics on the tracks that follow in very different ways, from speak-singing on "Mysteries We Understand" to singing with almost no musical back-up on "Listen" to creating a flat-out rock and roll sound on "California, Here I Come." As such, Tongues And Tails often comes across as unrefined. Unlike Timbre which was clearly Sophie experimenting with different musical styles and sounds, "Tongues and Tails" sounds more like the learning curve of the artist, as she feels out for her sound and simply tries a whole bunch of different, mostly keyboard-driven, ideas. Sophie takes very few chances on the album, it is surprisingly conservative in terms of number of instruments, given her follow-ups, but certainly an excellent first shot out.

In fact, it's hard to find a more original debut album than this! Unlike the more folk-oriented debut of Sarah McLachlan or the more vocal-jazz origins of Fiona Apple, Sophie B. Hawkins breaks onto the scene trying to make a classic pop-rock album, edging more toward the rock and roll end of the spectrum and setting her apart from most keyboard-driven solo artists. Perhaps now in this time of largely homogenized sound, Tongues And Tails ought to be a standard of originality by which other debuts ought to be judged.

Like the more commercially successful Apple and McLachlan, Hawkins is probably best known for her distinctive lyrics. She is a poet and lyricist and a true musician, writing ten of the eleven tracks on Tongues And Tails. The other track is a cover of Bob Dylan's "I Want You." "I Want You," as reimagined and reinterpreted by Sophie B. Hawkins is a slow, sultry ballad that is wrenching in its emotions. Unlike Dylan's original, up-tempo folksy song that is best described as a jig, Hawkins does justice to the lyrics, truly emoting the desire and longing expressed in Dylan's lines. Hawkins reimagines it and recreates the song with such beauty and anguish that when she sings, "I want you / I want you / I want you so bad . . ." the listener finds it impossible to disbelieve her. Her interpretation of Bob Dylan's "I Want You" is nothing less than genius. In fact, if you've never heard the folk-tempo, rock out as Dylan does it, I recommend you forgo it for the Sophie version. Sophie's version is soulful where Dylan's is poppy, hers blends the imagery to the music where Dylan's original is discontinuous between the sound and the lyrics.

Hawkins's poetry is a little more sophisticated on most tracks, with her lines generally being longer and more expressive and direct. So, for example, on "Before I Walk On Fire," the music cuts out midway through her refrain to accent the determination of the lines, "Before I walk on fire / I want you to look me in the face. / I won't flinch, I won't turn away."

Sophie's lyrics are bold and imaginative from the imagery of "Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover" to the fast talking "Mysteries We Understand" to the soaring "We Are One Body." Sophie expresses a diverse range of topics that is anything but teen fare. Her range extends beyond the standard love/loss combination that most artists tackle, though she does love ("Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover," "I Want You," and "Don't Stop Swaying") and loss ("Listen") quite well. She mixes in songs about moving and following one's dreams ("California Here I Come"), the potential of every life ("Savior Child") and the simple need for help, to be held by another ("Carry Me"). Often her songs have memorable opening lines that draw the listener in like, "I love the way life screwed up the way you're looking at me" ("Listen").

However, a number of tracks have an underdeveloped sound or feel or even lyrics to them. One such example is the whispery "Listen" that seems like it could be so much more on just about every level. The whispery sound is paired with lines that don't inspire - or reward - the attention the listener is forced to give them.

Similarly, - lyrically, not in musical accompaniment - the dizzying "Live And Let Love" overdoes the same thing that "Mysteries We Understand" does effectively. It is as if Sophie had an excellent idea to sing about something other than the standards (or make them seem new) and then became stuck in a rut.

All in all it was a pretty impressive start and it's fairly surprising that outside "Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover" the album didn't produce a charting single in the US. The strongest track is "Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover" (and while there's something to say about putting your best foot forward, on the first album putting the most superior track first doesn't encourage a lot of people to keep listening) and the weak link of the album is "Live And Let Lovve."

For other albums by strong female artists, please visit my reviews of:
Laws Of Illusion - Sarah McLachlan
Blow - Heather Nova
One Cell In The Sea - A Fine Frenzy


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

© 2011, 2008, 2002 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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