Friday, October 28, 2011

Susanna Hoffs Goes Solo With A Pretty Generic Pop Sound On When You're A Boy.

The Good: A few decent lyrics, vocals and instrumentals, Production
The Bad: Short, Blandly "pop," Generic overall sound, Nothing great or truly interesting
The Basics: All right, but not great or in any way unsurprising, When You're A Boy by Susanna Hoffs fades as fluffy, generic pop music.

Some things simply are what they are, I believe. It is hard to criticize them for being exactly what one expects them to be. So, for example, when one picks up the solo debut by former member of The Bangles, Susanna Hoffs, it is hard to expect that it is going to be something other than Bangles-like pop music. She was one of the driving forces of the band and as a result, when one listens to her album, it is unsurprising that it resonates much like an album by The Bangles.

On her solo album, When You're A Boy, Susanna Hoffs does nothing special. The album is the exact average one would expect from an '80's pop star. The album has all of the production sensibilities of an '80's album and there is a sense in the backing vocals - certainly on the first two tracks - that Hoffs has not truly left the sensibilities of being in a girl group behind, she's just changed who is in the group. So, the album is what it is: it is a solo pop endeavor for a light rock, more pop singer-songwriter and it resonates as something that is fluffy, dancable, and ultimately inconsequential.

With only twelve tracks, clocking out at 44:58, When You're A Boy is more or less the musical vision of Susanna Hoffs, the woman who became the focal point of the media's attention in The Bangles (she never declared herself the lead singer for the band, but the media named her that). On her solo debut, Hoffs co-wrote only seven of the tracks and there is something particularly lame about the fact that the title of the album comes from one of the cover songs. "Boys Keep Swinging" by David Bowie (and "B. Eno") is the final song on the album and When You're A Boy comes from that song. Similarly, "Unconditional Love" appears to have been a Cyndi Lauper song originally, though the lyrics were altered for (but not by, apparently) Susanna Hoffs. Three other songs on the album were similarly not written by Hoffs.

In addition to having limited writing control on the album, Hoffs receives no form of production credit. She is not listed as a co-producer, engineer or even a mixer, even on a single track. So, this opens the door to the question of how much of the sound is actually what Hoffs wanted or intended. As well, she is only credited instrumentally as "additional guitar" and it is not clear which tracks she plays that on. In fact, all it seems like she does consistently on her solo album is sing. Hoffs provides the lead vocals and is credited with some of her own backing vocals, alongside nine other people.

And the result is an album that sounds like generic pop. There are the standard pop ballads ("Unconditional Love," "Wishing On Telstar") as well as generic pop-dance songs ("So Much For Love" and "That's Why Girls Cry"). The album is largely softer rock-pop, but most of the vocals have a sugar-coated quality to them that makes one think entirely of Hoffs' performances with The Bangles, like on such albums as Different Light. When You're A Boy lacks any of the lyrical maturity that came with Hoffs' eponymous sophomore endeavor. The '90's started with Hoffs sounding largely like she was a leftover from the '80s.

In fact, the only song that truly sounds different from something Hoffs might have done while in The Bangles is "Something New." Murky and driven by guitars that are produced to be under the synths, but resisting their dominance, "Something New" is surprising for its ambiguity and cleverness. Hoffs doesn't sing in a singsong, bubblegum way on the track and as a result, there is a truly haunting quality to it and it stands out.

Lyrically, "Something New" also stands out, certainly of the songs that Hoffs co-wrote. Unlike some of the repetitive songs (virtually every other cut on the album) Hoffs and her co-writers become truly poetic with lines like "You want something new, something sweet / To rinse away the bitterness of another day fading away / You want something new, something bright / To lighten up the shadows of your darkest fears hovering near / You get so lonely lately, lonely and afraid / Maybe nothing really good will ever come your way / You want something new, something hot / Flames of passion burning all your bridges down . . ." ("Something New"). The song works well, especially because Hoffs is straightforward in the presentation as well; unlike something like "Unconditional Love," where she sounds like she is trying to be Cyndi Lauper, not just use one of her songs.

"So Much For Love" is a ridiculous pop-track from 1980, but Hoffs opens the album well with her own (more or less) song "My Side Of The Bed," which makes one wonder why it wasn't a hit when the album dropped in 1991. Unfortunately, Hoffs seems plagued by singsony lyrics and opening with "My Side Of The Bed" is something of an embodiment of that, with its lyrics "I've been dreamin' since I was born / And in my dreams I see eyes like yours / I'll be the pillow where you lay your head / If you'll come and sleep on my side of the bed. . . I know you hurt, I feel the pain / Take my hand and come out of the rain."

Unfortunately for Hoffs, that sense of limited and obvious rhyme scheme seems to permeate the album, especially on the tracks she co-wrote. By the time "Only Love" with its obvious rhymes like ". . .Gonna build yourself a wall of stone / Gonna live there inside it all alone / And you say love's the last thing you need / But every drop of rain that falls makes a flower grow / Don't give up now, don't give up now / Baby, don't you know. . ." one begins to be able to guess the lines, even on the first listen. This is not a terribly original album as far as the lyrics go and Hoffs repeats many of her refrains excessively, adding to the repetitive quality of the album.

When You're A Boy is a synthesizer and guitar driven album characterized by the voice of Susanna Hoffs and the incessant use of backing vocals. The album is heavily produced, so outside the vocals on "Something New," it is difficult to say whether or not Hoffs even has a decent voice. She seems to, but everything is so produced, it is tough to tell how much is her and how much is her presentation sanitized. With the frequency and quality of the backing vocals, this might as well be a lost album by the Bangles.

The only real flavor to the album (outside the haunting nature of "Something New") is that of insipid dance pop. "So Much For Love" is the archetypal dance song and "Made Of Stone" guts any emotional resonance it might have from its heavy use of synths and drums. It becomes obvious dance music and it lacks any depth or endurance to be much more interesting than that.

But then, this is pretty much what we expected from Susanna Hoffs: pop music. And she delivers, average music for the masses. The album is harder to find these days, but those who love pop will want to track it down. For the rest of us . . . well, there is plenty of better music out there.

The best track is "Something New," the low point is "So Much For Love."

For other female artists, please visit my reviews of:
300 Days At Sea - Heather Nova
21 - Adele
Wilderness - Sophie B. Hawkins


For other music reviews, be sure to check out my index page on the subject!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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