Monday, May 30, 2016

Different Light: A Little Less Bite, But Still All Right

With their second album, the Bangles just said, "Fuck it, we want some hits." But I like hits. Not everybody does, however, including AMG's Mark Deming:
The Bangles' first album, All Over The Place, may have earned them a smattering of radio and MTV airplay, but it's clear that with Different Light they were aiming for much higher stakes ... though Vicki Peterson does get to show off her guitar work on a few songs here, the differences between Different Light and All Over the Place are telling and a bit sad. The drum machines ... rob the performances of the organic feel of this group's best music, the funky accents of "Standing in the Hallway" are simply out of place ... most of the songs struggle to stand up under David Kahne's overly slick production and the layers of gingerbread added by a handful of guest musicians. Different Light turned The Bangles into bona fide pop stars, but it also transformed a spunky and distinctive band into a comparatively faceless vehicle for a hit-seeking producer; the group tries to let its personality shine through despite it all, but the effort fails most of the time.
Yeah, but ... it was the '80s! Name me some bands whose work got edgier over the course of the '80s. I'm hearing crickets. The Bangles wanted to have a good time, man, and so did everybody else. Based on that AMG review, I didn't even bother to listen to the album until recently, and maybe I'm a more charitable listener, but personally, this sounds like a long way from "fail." OK, some of the tracks are pretty meh: "Standing In The Hallway," "Return Post," "Angels Don't Fall In Love," "Not Like You" ... well, that's almost half the album. Then there's bassist Michael Steele's attempt to be the next Joni Mitchell with "Following"  - a solo acoustic performance that was oddly released as a single in Europe (?!). Hey, at least she didn't trot out the drum machine. But I feel like "In A Different Light" and "Let It Go" could have fit on All Over The Place, or could have at least been B-sides. How about this: the drop-off between All Over The Place and Different Light is not as steep as the drop-off between, say, Beauty And The Beat and Vacation? But I could see some of the L.A. cognoscenti feeling a little miffed. Still, it's funny that a lot of "hip" '80s listeners were really bothered by the Bangles' supposed corporate sell-out. Grow some perspective. It was the fucking Bangles. I mean, it wasn't like Bob Dylan going electric. And even that was actually a good thing!

Speaking of good things: the second single from the album, "If She Knew What She Wants," another hit version of a Jules Shear song (Cyndi Lauper had covered "All Through The Night" a couple of years earlier), which peaked at #29. "Walking Down Your Street" charted even higher at #11, but was arguably more inane, although how many '80s videos feature cameos from Little Richard and Randy Quaid?

There's also the cover of Big Star's "September Gurls," the 1974 power-pop classic that was a massive hit in an alternate dimension, just not the one in which we've lived. I got into Big Star long before I got in the Bangles, and in almost every article I read about Big Star in record guides, or in CD liner notes, everybody would always mention that the Bangles covered "September Gurls" in 1986, like it made Big Star seem more important. "See, even the Bangles liked Big Star." For years I rolled my eyes at that little piece of information. OK, maybe some ignorant '80s high school kid learned about Big Star from a Bangles cover, but I sure didn't. The Bangles? They were just '80s fluff. I mean, I was glad they helped give Alex Chilton what were probably some of his first genuine royalties, but other than that, who cared?

Then I actually heard the Bangles' version, and you know what? It's a good freakin' version! I'm not sure if Michael Steele was the best choice for lead vocals, but it's not really a song that depends on the vocals. And considering how lethargic some of the other songs on the album sound, "September Gurls" is reasonably punchy and rocking. I like how Vicki Peterson turned Chilton's uncluttered "Roger McGuinn circa 'Turn Turn Turn'" solo into a "Roger McGuinn circa 'Eight Miles High,'" play-as-many-notes-as-quickly-as-you-can solo. Is it the best cover ever? No. But is it a pleasant cover? I say sure. And the Bangles weren't just trying to be hip by covering it. They really were big Big Star fans. Now here they were, big stars themselves, playing Big Star. It was a big deal. And I was a big cynic for assuming their version probably stank.

I feel like I'm forgetting something. Oh yeahhhh. There was one other song on Different Light, it wasn't originally even supposed to be a single, a couple of radio stations began playing it, it took on a life of its own, something about ... starving like an Ethiopian? It'll come to me.

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