Monday, April 29, 2013

Substandard Pop, No Matter The Lighting: Different Light

The Good: Some decent lyrics, Good vocals, Some memorable tunes
The Bad: Very fluffy, Musically inconsistent, Short!
The Basics: Thoroughly average in the final analysis, Different Light by The Bangles is an erratic collection of pop tracks from sources within and outside the band.

I was recently listening to and reviewing a c.d. of Lilith Fair and I was caught by the presentation of "Eternal Flame" presented by Susanna Hoffs. Hoffs was one of the Bangles, for those too young to know better they were one of the pop-girl bands that preceded the Spice Girls or (shudder) the Pussycat Dolls, back when female pop-rock artists were more concerned with creating music than selling sex. Hoffs had a solo career (she might still, but if so she keeps it pretty quiet), so I was surprised that she would include one of her Bangles songs on the Lilith Fair album as opposed to one of her own solo works. This inspired me to pick up an album by The Bangles and give it a spin.

I picked up Different Light, a twelve-track pure pop album that clocks in at a disappointing 38 minutes, 40 seconds. Best known for the singles "Manic Monday," "Walk Like An Egyptian" and "If She Knew What She Wants," the Bangles might seem dominated by Susanna Hoffs, but on Different Light, the singing duties are remarkably well-distributed. Conveniently, the liner notes to the c.d. list who the main vocalist is for each track and for the quartet, vocals are remarkably well-distributed.

The question one might reasonably have after listening repeatedly to Different Light is "Whose vision is this album? Whose voice defines the Bangles?" By "voice," I don't mean vocals, but rather whose voice as in making a statement, is the album and band following? The hit song "Manic Monday," credited to "Christopher" was written by Prince (before he became a symbol). "Walk Like An Egyptian" was written by Liam Sternberg and "If She Knew What She Wants" was written by Jules Shear; the main three singles to be successful on the charts were all written by people who are not members of the Bangles. Of the remaining nine songs, eight are written or co-written by members of the quartet. So, why was the band reticent about releasing a song like "Return Post?" It's written and performed by members of The Bangles, why release the contracted out songs for the hits? On the album, only "Let It Go" is written and performed entirely by all four members of the group.

The reason I am belaboring this whole point and idea is because Different Light suffers greatly because the beast has no head. What Different Light lacks is a sense of creative unity that defines who and what the group and the album are. As a perfect example, the soft, folk-like "September Gurls" is followed by the punk-pop "Angels Don't Fall In Love," with its crazed drumming following such a gentle song, the ear just shudders. It is then followed by a pretty standard pop ballad called "Following."

While musical diversity is the hallmark of an artist who has skills, on Different Light, the result is more sloppy than professional. The feel of the album is that of a collection of singles tossed together. Thematically, the album is just as tormented as the sound. Michael Steele wrote the soft, sad, ponderous "Following," which brilliantly emotes with lines like, "You call me a loser / You call me a shadowing fool / Look over your shoulder / And you say I'm haunting you." Her vocals on the song are equally impressive for their simplicity and the tone of eerie loneliness they connote. "Following" is completely out of place on the same album as the album closer, "Not Like You," with its insipid rhymes of "Busted down and broken / All in two / But you never thought / This could happen to you / Wake up, stumble / Trip and fall / You had so much / And now you've lost it all." It is performed with the sound and resonance of a commercial jingle and it is as irritating as it is simplistic.

The thing that surprised me when considering the lines and collection of songs on Different Light was that Susanna Hoffs was the only one to leave the Bangles and have a front-running solo career. Honestly, "Following" is a strong enough song that it should have bought Michael Steele her own solo career. But more than that, the way the album is organized with each member contributing their own style and lyrics, the effect is one that is ultimately rather assembled. In short, what is not contributed by outside sources and simply performed by the Bangles is basically a collection of solo efforts wherein each member of the band writes their own songs and sings them with the others backing them.

The overall feel and sound of the bulk of the album is definitely pop, far more than pop-rock. The songs are largely jingles that have memorable tunes (ask any child of the 80s how "Walk Like An Egyptian" goes and they can at least spit out the chorus in tune). But they are musically safe; this is the typical guitar, bass, drums band and the Bangles are not pushing the envelope in any meaningful way on this album. Instead, Different Light could be any group of young women playing in their garage.

Does that mean it is without quality? Not at all. Regardless of who wrote the song, "If She Knew What She Wants" remains one of the most original pop songs of all time. How often is the youthful inexperience with desire actually explored? Susanna Hoffs beautifully sings "If she knew what she wants / He'd be giving it to her . . ." ("If She Knew What She Wants") with the stark expression of how young women seldom know what they are truly looking for. It's not another simple, stupid song about love or loss, it's just about youthful inexperience. That's cool.

And even the somewhat pointless and weird "Walk Like An Egyptian" is memorable if for nothing else than the Bangles managed to make number one hit out of how people move. It's ridiculous, candy-coated pop, but it does that well.

That's why we bother to remember the Bangles. All of the songs on Different Light worth remembering are on their "Greatest Hits" album, reducing significantly in value on its own.

The best track is "If She Knew What She Wants" (though "Following" impresses me quite a bit), the low point is "Angels Don't Fall In Love."

For other works with Susanna Hoffs, please visit my reviews of:
When You're A Boy
Susanna Hoffs
All I Want (single)


For other music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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