Thursday, May 26, 2016

Bangles EP (1982)



The seeds of the Bangles were planted the day after John Lennon was killed in New York; on the opposite coast, Susanna Hoffs had a conversation with the Peterson sisters -- Vicki and Debbi -- about their grief that resulted in a discovery of shared musical interests. These were mostly the same fixations that gripped the power pop bands that laid the groundwork for the subgenre in the '70s: Beatles, Byrds, Beach Boys with a strong dollop of generalized Anglophilia and a passion for the straight pop hook. Savvy music consumers all, the three of them also shared a taste for underground rock with parallel influences, something that would be apparent in their choice of cover material for nearly their entire career.

The Bangles' nostalgia for a crafty, chiming, trebly past helped them attain a readymade base of peers in the L.A. music scene of the early '80s, fitting snugly into a world in which punk had evolved into hardcore and new wave had become the sound of all things commercial, synthpop close behind. Bands like the Long Ryders and the Dream Syndicate set out with the same base of musical inclinations as the Bangles and took this into multiple directions; none of them would last into the '90s but their passion for performing original material that reacted against the tired mechanics of FM radio and arena rock clearly evoked memories of New York five years earlier.

With impressive speed, Hoffs and the Petersons recruited bassist Annette Zilinskas and began recording, putting a record out ostensibly so they could lay claim to the name "Bangs," a maneuver that failed. The Bangles' first EP, issued as a 12" on a short-lived I.R.S. imprint called Faulty Products, should rightfully be considered of a piece with their earlier self-released 7", "Getting Out of Hand," a song of Vicki's that defines their sound quickly -- clipped, chirping guitar lines, close harmonies, a slightly oddball rhythm and rich, immediately appealing writing, all careful and precise, recorded simply but evocatively. The band's scrappiness is appealing in a sense that calls back swiftly to softer, song-driven punk bands like the Only Ones.

It's quickly apparent that one element of the band was always strikingly professional: their vocals. Even when the music they're performing is loud and deliberately raw, they sound even in live shows like the most long-lived and hyper-confident of seasoned vocal groups. This skill likely lent itself to their destiny as prolific hitmakers a few years hence, which doesn't seem to have been their intention.

The EP that follows, produced by punk rock talent scout Craig Leon after he was recruited by I.R.S. head Miles Copeland, continues in the mold of "Getting Out of Hand." Over in less than fourteen minutes, it's straight-ahead pop music that just happens to be doused in ringing guitars and intricate melodies. Susanna Hoffs and Vicki Peterson trade off lead vocals, the latter making arguably the biggest impression as a singer on the stop-start Jam homage "I'm in Line" and as a guitarist on her soaring, quintessentially jangle-pop solo on "The Real World."

The Beatles' influence all but overwhelms the record -- "Want You," a great showcase for Hoffs' relentless rhythm guitar, is practically a Meet the Beatles! summary -- but this was no more true for the Bangles than it was for the likes of Big Star and ELO, and drummer Debbi Peterson deserves special credit for grasping an essential element of the early Beatles records that rarely makes its way into interpretations: Ringo Starr's deliberately unusual, constantly changing rhythms and unorthodox fills. The drum pattern on the folk-rocker "Mary Street," for instance, is extremely involved and thus exhilarating to hear, all while Peterson shares in the fully harmonized, brilliantly smooth vocal.

It's primarily because of the band's very good but still evolving songwriting that Bangles isn't their best record, but it's not hard to consider it the best, least diluted capturing of their sound on record. The fusion of hard, banged-out garage band instrumentation with the soft core of the vocals gives the EP a comfortably appealing but intriguingly detailed sound. More than a lot of simplistic power pop, these songs reward close listening and linger in your head. When side two ends with the first of many covers in the band's catalog, of "How Is the Air Up There?" by the La De Das (famous in New Zealand, obscure everywhere else), you get the most direct statement of the Bangles' innate appeal: fine interpreters always, they're having the time of their lives when they get a chance to share a song that matters to them. The enthusiasm is infectious, and it's enthusiasm far less for their own band or what it is they're singing about (inattentive partners and general angst, mostly, and like most good bands they put it across musically rather than lyrically) than simply for the act of playing music itself. They never sounded more enamored of it than here.

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