Both instant gratification and an acquired taste, Panic of Girls finds Blondie as unpredictable as ever.
Blondie has never been predictable. Even during periods of their greatest commercial success in the late '70s and early '80s, the group took risks. When their music did reflect prevailing pop trends, it was on their own terms. For all its mirror ball ambience, "Heart Of Glass" was an affectionate homage to the conventions of disco rather than a career-saving contrivance. Instead of replicating a proven formula, like re-teaming with Giorgio Moroder after "Call Me" topped the charts for six weeks, Blondie further explored their musical wanderlust. Incorporating jazz, Broadway, country, reggae, and rap on 1980’s Autoamerican, the group was rewarded with their highest-charting pop album. Chrysalis didn't hear any hits and yet the album spawned two number one singles with "Rapture" and "The Tide Is High".
Amidst all of their experimentation with other musical forms, Blondie has also never abandoned their pop orientation. Songs like "X Offender" and "Sunday Girl" remain blissful pop excursions and "Maria", the number one U.K. hit that inaugurated Blondie's reunion in 1999, is among the group's best latter-day recordings. A dozen years since that reunion, they've now delivered "Mother", a song that is every bit the equal of "Maria" insofar as soaring pop melodies are concerned. Characteristically, they've also retained their musical curiosity on Panic of Girls, a set that deploys the pop brilliance of "Mother" while serving up chanson, a Latin-infused club track, and covers of Brooklyn-based Beirut ("Sunday Smile") and reggae artist Sophia George ("Girlie Girlie"). The total result? Panic of Girls is a reward for Blondie fans and (probably) an acquired taste for casual listeners.
Panic of Girls doesn't necessarily continue from where the group's last album, The Curse of Blondie (2003), concluded. Instead, it reflects some of the changes the band has undergone within the past eight years. Original Blondie keyboardist Jimmy Destri departed the group shortly after The Curse of Blondie tour, his replacement Kevin Patrick left four years later, and longtime guitarist Paul Carbonara bowed out last year after more than a decade (though he's apparently present on some of Panic).
In between, Deborah Harry recorded the criminally overlooked Necessary Evil (2007) solo album. Though Harry's solo projects have always been separate enterprises from Blondie, the Super Buddha creative team that spearheaded Necessary Evil (and produced the group's updated version of "In the Flesh" in 2006) penned two songs with Harry for Panic of Girls, "D-Day" and "Words In My Mouth". The former is the more musically gripping of the two, a locked and loaded charge of double entendre fueled by Clem Burke's go-go beat.
Producer Kato Khandwala furnishes what will probably become two of the album's most durable tracks. (Jeff Saltzman produced the remaining nine cuts on the U.S. edition of the album.) Written by Khandwala with Deborah Harry and Ben Philips (of The Pretty Reckless), "Mother" and "The End the End" provide a pair of distinct moods. The charms of "Mother", an ode to the underground New York club of the same name, constitute a Blondie classic. Listeners who enjoy hearing Blondie's front woman belt will keep "Mother" close. The chorus calls upon the full power of Harry's voice, with a lullaby-like melody tagged to the singer's anthemic phrasing of the song title. Anything that follows such perfection could be a letdown but the balmy reggae sway of "The End the End" successfully holds its own.
Another duo of strong cuts comes from keyboardist Matt Katz-Bohen (a new addition to the Blondie line-up, along with guitarist Tommy Kessler) and Laurel Katz-Bohen. "Love Doesn't Frighten Me" is the keeper. The driving guitar fuels the track and gives Clem Burke a moment to display his dexterity behind the drum kit. Harry's voice is in fine form all throughout, shading words like "Crying all night my tears are oceans, they come and go" with a honeyed alto. The instant appeal of the track suggests that once "Mother" has its full run, "Love Doesn't Frighten Me" will find a lifeline beyond just Blondie fans.
Somewhat disappointingly, Blondie co-founders Deborah Harry and Chris Stein only collaborate for one song, "China Shoes". However, it's a solid addition to a library of songs that includes "Pretty Baby", "Rip Her to Shreds", and "Dreaming". Closing the album, "China Shoes" is simple, sentimental, and leaves a lingering a sweetness, accentuated by Harry and Stein's shared history of more than 35 years.
While Panic of Girls certainly advances Blondie's legacy as an influential and consistently relevant force, there are a few moments that, at best, improve upon repeated listening or at worst, taint the band's otherwise commendable return to recording. The uniqueness of the Jacques Brel/Serge Gainsbourg-inspired "Le Bleu" is practically buried as the penultimate track while "Girlie Girlie" is front-loaded among far superior tracks. "Wipe Off My Sweat" induces a sweat but features a better bridge than a chorus, which suffers from a rather interminable melody. "Sunday Smile" is an intriguing cover. Harmonizing with herself, Deborah Harry is ever-beguiling, and Zach Condon's trumpet solo is a classy touch, but at least one minute could be trimmed from what becomes a tiresome loop.
Another factor is the sequencing of Panic of Girls. The more accessible tracks reside in the first half of the album, which makes the album's second half potentially challenging for impatient listeners. In fact, Panic of Girls might actually benefit from the "shuffle" function on stereos or mp3 players to provide even more contrast between the pop-geared tracks and the individual genre sorties.
According to Chris Stein, the band has already commenced work on their tenth release. I am hopeful that the unpredictability will continue ...