Like Liz Phair did with her 2003 self-titled CD, Sophie B. Hawkins has adopted a decidedly more commercial sound on her latest release. Teaming up with dance-pop production wizards Christian and Frank Berman (Real McCoy, Baha Men, Amber), Hawkins has released Wilderness, an album chock full of dance synthesizers and horn sections. Like Phair, Hawkins is likely to receive mixed reviews from her core audience with the pop-laced tangent she has taken. Gone is the anguished wailing found on earlier material, and in its place, a happier, lighter Sophie B. Hawkins. According to her press release, the material for Wilderness was written "in an incredibly bright period." But what earned Hawkins her fan base is not necessarily bright -- dark desire and passion has been her staple. The shift toward the mainstream may cost her some fans, but it also may earn her new ones in a younger demographic. It's hard to say if the change in style was done solely as a sales tactic, as Phair readily admitted, or if Hawkins simply doesn't have the angst-ridden drive of "Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover" in her anymore.
"Beautiful Girl" is a decent opening to the CD, and certainly gives the listener a hint at the commercial tone of the album. But it still contains bits of the old Sophie B., and is recognizable as a viable musical progression from everyone's favorite omnisexual being. But any trace of the old Sophie is quickly erased by the time the third track, "Meet Me on a Rooftop" be-bops its way into the speakers. The candy-coasted synthesizers sound horribly out of place on a Sophie B. Hawkins album, but apparently, this is what Hawkins sounds like in her "bright period."
Possibly the most off-target song on the album is "Surfer Girl". The saccharine-sweet tune would be difficult to pull off even for a Mandy Moore or Jessica Simpson. Hawkins is a woman in her 30s -- she should leave the immature subject matter to the teen set. Even in the hands of a barely pubescent pop diva, lyrics like, "I'd rather be your surfer girl / Than have all the riches in this world," and, "Sweep me out in your riptide" are best left unsung by anyone.
"Adrian" continues where "Surfer Girl" left off. Marimba-laced rhythms and painful horn/string sections interlace to create what sounds like filler music from an episode of The Love Boat. "Blue" is a close runner-up for worst track on the album, waylaid with synthesized horn fills that just don't belong on an album produced after the early-'80s, period.
That's not to say the entire album is a miss; there are undoubtedly good moments here. One of them is "Sweetsexywoman", a jazzy mid-tempo ballad that capitalizes on Hawkins's most valuable asset -- her mournful voice unleashed in breathy pleas of desire. Not overly dramatic, "Sweetsexywoman" is right on target, with its piano-based blues and well-suited gentle vocals. Hawkins reveals her penchant for jazz a second time on Wilderness in "You Make Me High". Torch songs seem to suit Hawkins extremely well. Her untraditional voice is not necessarily the most adept in music, but it works for her. The combination of jazz standard-type material and her sometimes overstretched singing register combine for a curious effect. It makes one wish she had written more songs in the blues/jazz vein, rather than venturing down the pop path she chose for the majority of the album. In the closing track, "Feelin' Good", she shows shades of Janis Joplin at the song's climax, only to quiet down to a softened, "I was radiating nature / And I'm goin' out, out / Where the sands blow / I'm goin' where I can walk my troubles all away."
The album's strongest track is "Angel of Darkness". Guitars and powerful drumming set a more rock-based sound, tempered by just the right amount of orchestration. This song serves as a reminder of the Sophie B. Hawkins that earned herself a place on the charts, and unfortunately, highlights the bad track selection / production style on the rest of Wilderness. Showcasing her talent as an instrumentalist, Hawkins played the deft Zeppelin-esque guitar lead that effectively intensifies and solidifies "Angel of Darkness". There is no doubt that Hawkins is a competent musician; it's just her choice of material seems woefully misguided for most of this latest release.
Hawkins is decidedly happier and less tortured sounding, when compared to previous efforts Tongues and Tails and Timbre. But this does not necessarily work in her musical favor. Wilderness is not an easy album to pan entirely; its good moments are strong enough to warrant recommendation. But the weak tracks are so off that they taint the entire listening experience. Maybe, with a less dance-based production team and better guidance with song selection, Hawkins would have found a happy balance between her established, darker sound and the misguided pop music overload that scars so much of Wilderness.