Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Bangles: All Over the Place (1984)



The Bangles' first album is almost incomparable to the records that made them famous a few years later. Though they were already being meddled with almost as soon as they signed to Columbia Records, and though they are identifiably -- by their impressive harmony vocals if nothing else -- the same band that would record "Be with You" and "In a Different Light," this is truly an alternative rock, guitar and jangle-based Paisley Underground recording. It fits snugly with power pop as it evolved in the wake of new wave and at the precise juncture when post-punk began to transform into what's variously called college or indie music. It's only subtle by comparison to the band's subsequent albums, only polished by comparison to the EP and first single. Taken on its own terms, it's a marathon of relentlessly catchy, precisely performed, enthusiastically sung and still unassuming, still restless rock & roll with a slight punk-era kick.

All Over the Place's emotional color and strength are also not to be underestimated; the words may be an essentially ordinary catalog of relationship grievances, but their tone of early-twenties absorption and gathering of experience is immensely relatable and conversational. In direct contradiction to the bliss of "In Your Room" and such, most of these songs capture the singer after reality has set in, and you can hear this weariness drifting into the vocals by all four members. The toxic relationships of "James" ("I'll only take this shit for so long"), "Silent Treatment" ("nothing, nothing / he says nothing") and "More Than Meets the Eye," which is about a boundary-stretching, controlling boyfriend or maybe even a stalker, take on universally recognizable subject matter that was almost never explored with such seen-it-all wisdom by women in rock music before the '80s. Lesley Gore and a few obscure '60s garage bands like Denise & Co. notwithstanding, they'd never really had the chance.

Not all of the changes that were thrust on the Bangles between the EP release and the Columbia signing were negative. Their recruitment of bassist Michael Steele, a pro who'd been a member of the Runaways before they began to implode, completed the picture of Susanna Hoffs and the Petersons' Beatles-inspired ideal: four members, four singers, four songwriters. Steele's writing is tougher, her singing gritter, than the others', and this sets up her addition to the lineup as a perfect counterpoint. She doesn't contribute any songs on All Over, but her work would ironically be the future albums' strongest channel to the Bangles as they originally stood: as a rock band who delivered crafty originals about the anxieties and uncertainties of becoming an adult.

The sterling, occasionally barbed, consistently infallible power pop on this LP carries through from Bangles but adds a healthy amount of folk-rock influence, in the writing and vocals if not the performances. The bed of singing and sweet guitars on the country-derived, soaring "All About You" and "Tell Me" (which, to be honest, sound a bit too much alike) easily recall the Byrds circa "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better," and though it may not be all that shocking given their shared pallette of favorite bands and a common onetime association with Miles Copeland and IRS, it's striking how much they occasionally sound like R.E.M. In particular, listen carefully to "Dover Beach" and tell me you can't hear Michael Stipe belting it out circa Lifes Rich Pageant.

Of course, Stipe and his band's abstraction isn't theirs, and R.E.M. would never in a hundred years have opted for Vicki Peterson's stinging, impressively loose guitar solos on the cranked-up, confident opener and single "Hero Takes a Fall" -- the first of the album's many subtle jabs at the male-dominated business and universe, thrilling at a powerful man's failures -- or on the later big rock move "Restless." Underneath the album's fairly uniform sound -- emphasizing harmonies in full-blown stereo -- is an eclectic range of sounds that are all approached ably. In general Hoffs sings the stronger pop songs, Vicki Peterson the more rollicking cuts, but not uniformly, and they share "Hero Takes a Fall" and each take one of the album's slinkiest grooves, "Restless" and the brilliantly swinging "He's Got a Secret," giving them both a chance to take the spotlight as a singer with chops and sophistication. There's no obvious "leader" at this point. And with the odd, string quartet-led "More Than Meets the Eye," the entire band works mostly a cappella and turns the Beach Boys' "And Your Dream Comes True" upside down.

On Different Light two years hence, the Bangles would introduce Alex Chilton and Big Star to an audience with an enormous age range by covering "September Gurls," sung by Michael Steele. Chilton was a great fit for them as a lyricist because he shares their empathy for a kind of angst that can seem petty even as you're feeling it, but he also provided a connection to their roots as music fans and crate-diggers. If anything, the first album leans even more strongly on these impulses, and has more space to do so in the absence of the "donated songs" that would dominate Light. Their Grass Roots cover "Where Were You When I Needed You" would be relegated to a b-side, but their take on the Emmitt Rhodes-penned Merry Go Round song "Live" is slotted in right between "Hero Takes a Fall" and "James," and it's a heavy compliment to the Bangles that it sounds for all the world like an original in this context.

The album's other cover, though, is something else. It would be a permanent staple in their setlists, drummer Debbi Peterson's big move on lead vocals, and they would ride it to semi-notoriety with a trite but agreeably eccentric music video starring Leonard Nimoy. With "Going Down to Liverpool," the Bangles give the floor to an even more unfairly unsung act from the '80s, Katrina and the Waves, the utopian power pop band conjured up by ex-Soft Boys guitarist Kimberley Rew, who wrote nearly all of their songs, and singer-guitarist Katrina Leskanich. The Bangles don't do a whole lot with "Going Down" (which the Waves had never released as a single) except add stronger harmonies and soften it up a bit, and it's hard to define one of the records as better than the other, but there is a vast gulf of difference in feeling between Leskanich's hardened hopefulness and Peterson's absolute ache. Both performances are about boredom, feeling lost and sedentary and cast off in a shrinking world, but the Bangles' is somehow the more haunting of the pair because its displacement is magnified by its act of love toward a relatively obscure pop song. It's something picked out from burial and held up as a monument of rock & roll perfectly defining a feeling; like the best melancholic pop from the Beach Boys to Dusty Springfield, it conceals its agony with sonic heaven. In all of this it becomes the defining gesture of affection by the Bangles toward their chosen art.

Yet the grandest moment on All Over the Place nevertheless hits closer to home. A true collaboration written by Vicki Peterson and sung by Susanna Hoffs, "James" is nowhere close to being the most famous of the Bangles' originals but it's very likely their best. For one thing it's a model of pop structure, unhinged guitars gathering into blissful unison over verses that sound like choruses and a short chorus that touches the ground before careening off again. Hoffs' vocal takes new wave paranoia back into the scope of rational disappointment and dread -- in nearly the same breath, she can remember a long-lost ambition and feel defeated, damaged and fully in control ("I knew it'd turn out like this, I'm keeping one foot on the train," she begins). Peterson's lyric is precise and felt in a sense that seems telling, like it's the one full picture we get of the relationship that might have inspired the consternation and skepticism heard all over this record. As a songwriter she wastes no time exploiting James' one-syllable name, but takes no easy way out elsewhere, forming tongue-tying grievances into words that scan perfectly, then wound. You don't write a line like "You think there's someone better for you / you think I'm too young to see this thing through" if there's not an honest scar at its core, but then again how could Hoffs sing it the way she does if it weren't her story? That's the magic, one supposes.

"James" is really a microcosm for the rest of the album, but it lingers long afterward as one of the clearest, most cutting broken relationship songs of its stripe, certainly one of the most mature. It's moving and cathartic because it's so weirdly specific, and because Hoffs and the band hit such an aural sweet spot with its soft-hard contrasts. Transforming heartbreak into a singalong is an act of stubborn defiance. So is going to the record store, hearing a song like "Going Down to Liverpool" that both takes you far away from your problems and lets you completely dive into them anew, and sharing it. The garage band is a salve for us; it certainly is for the Bangles, and they pass the emotional relief along elegantly.

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