Monday, March 5, 2012

Whaler: Sophie B.'s Pop-Rock Experiment

The Good: Amazing lyrics, A wonderful voice, Great imagery. A lot of passion!
The Bad: A certain lack of continuity, wild experimentation.
The Basics: If you're tired of all that is out there, here emerges a bold new voice and sound. Whaler contains a perfect song, a definite buy!

When Sophie B. Hawkins released Whaler in 1994, an impassioned push of its first single (and first track) "Right Beside You" failed to duplicate the success of Sophie's debut single "Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover" off Tongues And Tails. Just as Sophie's follow-up singles to her Top 5 hit failed to chart well ("California Here I Come" and "Mysteries We Understand" were released as singles in the United States and both did far better in Europe than in the States), "Right Beside You" simply could not find an audience. Just before the public was about to term her a "one hit wonder" and shelve her, "As I Lay Me Down" erupted onto the airwaves as something powerful and different in 1995.

Lucky us.

Whaler proves that the single success Sophie had with "Damn" (and all of the other positive songs on her debut album) was not a fluke. Sophie B. Hawkins has talent, lyrically and vocally and Whaler is an excellent collection of both. The album contains a diverse sound from the synthed up "Right Beside You" to the island sound of "Swing From Limb to Limb (My Home Is In Your Jungle)" to the straightforward rock of "I Need Nothing Else." The cohesive element is a generally high caliber of lyrics.

Sophie B. Hawkins is an effective poet and all of her songs are well-written. Whaler has no cover songs, so this is truly 100% Sophie, save that on "The Ballad of Sleeping Beauty" (which was released as a single "Only Love" after the success of "As I Lay Me Down") has edited lyrics. The opening to the song, "You messed with my head / You messed with the dead / Now I'm gonna mess with you" are edited from her original word, which was not "messed." Only the UK single for another song has the original demo version and it's vastly superior with her original phrasing.

The divisive element on Whaler is clearly the range of experimentation in sound on the album. Indeed, anyone who would predict that an album that began with a song such as "Right Beside You" would end with the smoky jazz sound of "Mr. Tugboat Hello" would be a pretty impressive gambler. The point is, this album does not have song after song sounding alike and the range it takes is more fractured than Tongues And Tails and less obviously, boldly experimental than "Timbre." Whereas Timbre successfully mixes its eclectic range of sounds, Whaler fails to do it as cohesively. Moreover, Whaler takes few lyrical risks the way Timbre does. While Sophie sings with beautiful imagery about lovemaking on tracks like "I Need Nothing Else," there is nothing as graphic or disturbing on Whaler as "The Darkest Childe" from Timbre.

The easy redemption of this album is in its second track. "Did We Not Choose Each Other" is a perfect song, the kind you could listen to the rest of your life without ever getting sick of it. It's an amazing song on every level and worth the album price alone. With brilliant double entendre, Sophie sings about love and croons, "Did we not choose each other? / Are we just heroes for a day? Can we not judge each other? I'd rather wipe your tears away . . ." The magic here is that on different days, at different times, the line "Can we not judge each other" resonates differently, from "are we able to not judge one another" to "can we go without judging one another." That's clever and the song itself is perfectly constructed musically to keep the poetic lyrics flowing magically.

Perhaps the best example of how Whaler falters is in the track "Don't Don't Tell Me No." While lyrically exceptional, the refrain (which is the title) quickly becomes grating. It is as if on Whaler, Sophie has trouble doing everything right, which is fine because perfection is so incredibly rare. When the lyrics are hot, the sound doesn't match, when one track follows something that is so vastly different from it so as to disturb the sensibilities, the listener is set off.

Still, it's a far better album, single by single and as an album, than most anything on the radio today.

Whaler illustrates a maturity and development from Tongues And Tails but while musically interesting is too fractured to be considered a truly great album. The strongest track, by far, is "Did We Not Choose Each Other" and the weakest link is "Swing From Limb To Limb."

For other works by Sophie B. Hawkins, please check out my reviews of:
Tongues And Tails
"I Want You" (single)
"Right Beside You" (single)
The Cream Will Rise (documentary)
Live! Bad Kitty Board Mix


For other music reviews, please be sure to visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing of all my music reviews!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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