These four young women from Los Angeles — originally known as the Bangs — display an odd collection of influences on their five-track debut EP, neatly produced by Craig Leon. The swell harmonies on several cuts come straight from the Mamas and the Papas, while the music alternates between evoking Rubber Soul and energetic, bantamweight Yardbirds-styled garage rock. The playing’s fine and the vocals are great — the songs just aren’t up to snuff.
The Bangles’ young career was temporarily derailed when Faulty Products went out of business and bassist Annette Zilinskas left to join Blood on the Saddle. Come 1984, the group swung back into action, fortified with a new bassist, a more reliable record contract, one of the best American power-pop producers money can buy (David Kahne) and a passel of brilliant new songs (mostly by guitarist Vicki Peterson, but also Kimberley Rew’s “Going Down to Liverpool,” a cover which indirectly led to his group, Katrina and the Waves, finally securing an American deal). All Over the Place has everything a pop album needs: exceptional harmony vocals, catchy, memorable and intelligent tunes and a full dose of rock’n’roll guitar energy. Unlike the Go-Go’s, who never fully clarified their lyrical stance, the Bangles offer an adult play-fair-or- take-a-hike independence that is a lot more contemporary than their joyously evocative sound. The best cuts other than “Liverpool” — “Hero Takes a Fall,” “Tell Me” and “James” — feature guitarist Susanna Hoffs’ alluring vocals and are unassailable gems; the worst tracks only fall short of that by a smidge. Simply wonderful.
Prince became a fan, and gave the rising band a song, “Manic Monday” (written pseudonymously by “Christopher”), for Different Light. Despite trivial lyrics, it became a gigantic hit single, establishing the quartet’s stardom but causing many to overlook the LP’s finer points: Jules Shear’s “If She Knew What She Wants,” Alex Chilton’s classic “September Gurls” and bassist Michael Steele’s harrowing “Following.” If not as consistently top-notch as All Over the Place, it’s nonetheless enjoyable and often memorable.
Taking a dive from the precipice of quality pop, the Bangles sacrificed Everything to the gods of radio programming. Studiously produced by Davitt Sigerson into a weak imitation of artistic pretension, the mellifluous album contains one great song (the sexy “In Your Room”), lots of bad ideas (“Bell Jar,” a Sylvia Plath tribute so idiotic that the grim lyrics and peppy arrangement almost fit together; “Glitter Years,” a sheepish glam-rock recollection that ends with a Bowie quote; the merry death wish of “Crash and Burn”) and the group’s creative nadir: the blatant pandering song-factory schmaltz of Hoffs’ showcase “Eternal Flame,” a test-run for her impending solo career.
Besides a short list of obvious LP tracks (that manages to overlook “September Gurls,” “James,” and other crucial tunes), the compilation appends the Bangles’ ripping version of Paul Simon’s “Hazy Shade of Winter” (from the Less Than Zero soundtrack), a bland folky romp through the Grass Roots’ “Where Were You When I Needed You” (from an early B-side) and an insignificant Everything outtake.
Hoffs’ first solo album (named for a lyric from the Bowie song that closes the record) is a no-holds-barred commercial bore, with painstaking adult-pop overproduction by Kahne and a strange hodgepodge of demographically designed material. Besides the hollow products of hit hacks, the scattered program includes Cyndi Lauper’s “Unconditional Love” (with “new lyrics written expressly for Susanna Hoffs”!), E*I*E*I*O’s fine “This Time,” Pearl Harbor and the Explosions’ “So Much for Love” and “That’s Why Girls Cry,” a presentable collaboration between singer, producer and Juliana Hatfield. Nancy Boy’s Donovan Leitch is one of the numerous backing singers; Who bassist John Entwistle guests on the appalling misreading of “Boys Keep Swinging.”