The Bangles made quite a splash in the mid-'80s when their second album, Different Light, was released in 1986. The album peaked at number 2 on the Billboard charts, riding the crest of a wave created by the singles "Manic Monday" (which hit number 2) and "Walk Like an Egyptian" (which topped the charts). This four-woman band had chops and a deep knowledge of '60s-era rock and folk that permeated their music. At the same time, Different Light was a true artifact of '80s rock. From the kitschy synthesizer on "Manic Monday" to the trendy production that flattened the bottoms and highlighted the upper registers, the album was redolent of the synthetic pop of the decade. But it also reeked of the power pop of the '60s and did it better and with more wit and power than most. Hence, its climb up the charts.
Yet, despite their success -- and obvious talent -- the Bangles too often were viewed only through the prism of their novelty: the female rock band. Like the Go-Gos before them, the Bangles suffered for their gender in critical terms and they were taken less than seriously as rockers and songwriters than they should have been. Part of it has to do with the gender politics of the industry, which has always viewed rock and roll as the province of men. (Actually, the industry has always undervalued its artists, the executives focusing only on dollar signs and marketing schemes, not truly understanding the vicissitudes of artistic taste. But even within this paradigm, they have always viewed women artists with even less respect than they viewed men.)
Women were singers of men's songs and even strong personalities like Grace Slick or Aretha Franklin were confined by their gender to roles set by the industry. They were pushed to the margins, even when they wrote their own songs, into a feminine ghetto -- they could sing folk songs or even belt out soul or the blues, but they certainly didn't play lead guitar or drums. Moe Tucker, drummer for the Velvet Underground, was an early exception, as was Chrissy Hynde of the Pretenders 10 years later, but their impact on this element of gender politics was limited at the time.
Calling the Go-Gos and the Bangles "great all-girl bands" may seem a compliment, but when viewed within the context of this gender bias, it becomes clear that it has other meanings that have nothing to do with the music. While obviously not a pejorative, the phrase has the effect of narrowing the discourse -- to attach the "all-girl" label to them is to turn them into novelty, to not have to judge them on merits independent of their genre, to consign them to second-rate status. "They're good for an all-girl band, but ..." -- the "but" implying that the band shouldn't be judged on the same level as male rockers. Pushing the Bangles (and the Go-Gos) to the margins has made it easy to forget how strong a band they were -- and still are, as evidenced by their latest, Doll Revolution.
"Doll Revolution opens with what maybe the band's three best tunes. "Doll Revolution (tear off your own head)" is a jumping rendition of Elvis Costello's first single from his 2002 disc When I Was Cruel. But where Costello's version is one part spitting fury, one part metallic thrash-up, and one part '60s psychedelia, the Bangles is a loud (though not as loud) '60s rave-up reminiscent of the best garage bands on great Nuggets compilation box-set. The song had been conceived by Elvis as the theme song for a television show about an all-girl rock band that just happened to be spies, and it's obvious the Bangles enjoy the joke -- it opens with a hokey Brit accent proclaiming "one must tear off one's own head" as the drum kick starts the excitement and the band ignites the proceedings. The song catches fire from there and never lets up. At the same time, there is a plasticity to the song, a modish Austin Powers feel -- perhaps it's the band's trademark harmonies set atop the adrenaline-fueled instrumentation -- which establishes the direction this Bangles record will take. This is an album of lush vocals, acoustic guitars, and flat-out rock and roll, punctuated Vicki Peterson's vivid lead guitar.
"Stealing Rosemary" keeps that '60s feel going with its jangly guitars and, again, those exquisite harmonies. The song has a Mamas and Papas feel, but with more of a musical bite and some kick-ass drumming from Debbi Peterson -- very much in the same vein as the band's 1987 cover of Paul Simon's "Hazy Shade of Winter", but with a sweetness the earlier song lacked. "Something You Said" is a lush ballad that shows off Suzanna Hoffs's vocals and, again, gets carried on the harmonies.
And harmonies are the key -- they make everything else on this record work. The Bangles, who produced the disc along with Brad Wood (who has worked with Liz Phair, Pete Yorn, Better Than Ezra and others), deserve a lot of credit for understanding that. Unlike the band's work in the 1980s, which in retrospect suffered from the era's devotion to a production style that muddied the sound, this disc is clean and the harmonies ring out powerfully.
The acoustic guitar and Suzanna Hoffs's vocal that open "I Will Take Care of You" are crisp and, even when the rest of the band comes in, they remain out front, the harmonies and instrumentation (including an overlay of strings) only underscoring the song's tender touch.
On songs like Debbi Peterson's "Ask Me No Questions" and "Here Right Now" or Vicki Peterson's "The Rain Song" and "Single By Choice", the band makes their sexual politics clear. They believe in human connection, but not at the cost of their independence. On "Single By Choice," they sing "I know what you're thinking / She can't be complete 'til the right kind of man / Come sweep her off her feet / Well I've been there before / Times four or times five / With the right kind of man / Barely made it out alive / Single by choice". On "Here Right Now", they sing "Slow down / Take the time to let it be / I wanna show you / There's no place better than / Here right now".
It's a mature aesthetic, quite far from the faddishness of "Walk Like an Egyptian" or the lightness of "Eternal Flame" (a song that turned me off to the band when it came out), and one that expands the album with each listen.
It is not a perfect disc -- "Mixed Messages" and "Grateful" are rather trite, one sounding too much like the kind of weak female pop-folk sung by Vanessa Carlton, the other too much in the "Eternal Flame" vein. But it is a very good one. It's time to accept the Bangles for what they are: a powerful pop-rock band who can flat out play.