On her debut album, Sophie Ballantine Hawkins commands “Let’s fill the world with desire.” On her second, she proclaims herself “the wild woman at your door.” Consider her a kind of boho Madonna; Hawkins was raised in a sophisticated Manhattan household and began pursuing music in earnest as an adolescent. She studied jazz, as well as percussion with the Nigerian master Babatunde Olatunji; her bands played everywhere from the Catskills to CBGB. She did a brief stint in Bryan Ferry’s band and logged time as an actor and a performance artist.
When she finally emerged with Tongues and Tails, Hawkins’ music and image were fully formed. Willing to include a nude photo of herself in the CD booklet, she claimed in interviews to be “omnisexual,” upping a titillation factor already used to great effect by Prince and Madonna. It’s a shame that such media manipulation obscured the album’s music, which offers a fresh and inventive blend of rock, dance music, rap, jazz touches and world music styles that bring an exotic touch to the unbridled and unabashed lust of Hawkins’ lyrics. Co-produced by Rick Chertoff and former Todd Rundgren sideman Ralph Shuckett, the album boasts terrific players (bassist Mark Egan, drummer Omar Hakim) and Hawkins’ advanced sense of arrangements, which marry polyrhythmic dance grooves and droning ambient synthesizers. The album opens with its best shot, the sultry Top 5 smash “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover,” and backs it up with “California Here I Come,” “Mysteries We Understand,” “Before I Walk on Fire” and “Live and Let Love” — each a solid, memorable composition. Tongues and Tails has only a couple of missteps: “Saviour Child,” which sounds like a Flashdance soundtrack leftover, and a lumbering, slowed-down cover of Bob Dylan’s “I Want You,” whose rambling wordiness doesn’t fit Hawkins’ more clipped, direct style.
In the wake of Tongues and Tails‘ adventurous spirit, Whaler is a surprising turnabout, a slick, synthesizer-driven collection of upbeat pop tunes whose chart ambitions are as naked as Hawkins’ carnal desires: Janet Jackson or Paula Abdul could have recorded “As I Lay Me Down,” the song that broke Whaler in North America nearly a year after its release. Fortunately, Hawkins hasn’t abandoned her knack for intriguing instrumental touches — the Middle Eastern synthesizer squiggle of “Right Beside You,” the polyrhythmic underbelly of “Did We Not Choose Each Other,” the bongo attack of “Sometimes I See,” the layered vocal harmonies at the end of “Don’t Don’t Tell Me No,” the bouncy texture of “Swing From Limb to Limb.”