So far, responses to Blondie’s ninth studio album, Panic of Girls, have been mixed. In part, this is due to the rather scatter-gunned release and promotion history for this long-awaited set, their first since 2003. Back in June, the Brits got their edition, including a collector’s box with all sorts of goodies not available on the other side of the pond. The Japanese version has two bonus tracks not on the September U.S. release. Reportedly, the band recorded 35 tracks and only issued 11 of them on the standard version. This makes perfect sense; however, the album’s title comes from a line from one of those unused songs which makes its meaning rather enigmatic.
Another issue for some critics is that the new collection is almost two Blondies in one. The opening songs, “D-Day,” “What I Heard,” and the first single, “Mother,” are vintage new wave rock ‘n roll. They showcase all the energy and polish of Blondie’s late ‘70s era recordings. Starting with “The End, the End,” however, the musical settings often seem to pick up where “The Tide is High” left off all those years ago. That is, much of what follows clearly draws from an international palate of influences which likely confuses older fans. There’s the reggae of “Girlie Girlie,” the electronic Latin beat of “Wipe Off My Sweat,” and the French lyrics and accordion-based “Le Bleu.” While the musicianship is outstanding on all these offerings, some listeners can’t get over Debbie Harry’s new and more mature, husky tambre.
For me, while Harry now sometimes seems to be approaching Marlene Dietrich, Edith Piaf territory, I don’t find her new delivery an admission of age but rather as an opportunity to demonstrate what she is capable of. She’s now as much interpreter as singer of her songs, but perhaps a tad more dramatic, and certainly more intimate. Reaching from the lower registers, “Words in My Mouth,” in particular, has her articulating her lyrics in an almost psychedelic fashion. That might not be the most precise adjective, but the style is a far cry from Harry’s clear-voiced lines on classics like “Dreaming” and “Atomic.”
I’ll admit some of the latter songs don’t shine lyrically and their slow pace can put off old-timers. “Love Doesn’t Frighten Me” and “Sunday Smile” will likely be few listeners’ favorites—but then again, all these tracks are worth a second play for one key reason.
Blondie has always been much more than its lead singer. The players on this disc, veterans and new members alike, are performing at a very high level indeed. They too have improved with age. Most contribute to the songwriting and all contribute to the often sophisticated production. Of course, there’s Chris Stein (guitar), Clem Burke (drums, percussion, backing vocals), Paul Carbonara (guitar), Leigh Foxx (bass), and Matt Katz Bohen (keyboards, piano, organ). Additional players include Elliot Easton (guitar), Zach Condon (trumpet), and Tommy Kessler (guitar). In other words, the first time through this set, many of us will focus on where Debbie Harry is at now. A second, third or fourth play may open up a wider appreciation for what is a band in every sense of the term.
You’ve got to go to Amazon.com for this one, as the group has an exclusive deal with that outlet for this release. Check out the samples you can find online, and if they’re to your liking, try the full collection. Perhaps you won’t fall in love with all the songs from first to last, but there’s enough here for devotees of the original sound as well as those willing to let musicians expand and evolve over the years. Throw out your expectations and experience this one on its own terms. If you can go on an international tour, why not in the company of old friends who clearly know the lay of the land and have absorbed the flavors of where they’ve been?