Sure, when you mention The Bangles, inevitably terms like “retro” are going to be part of the discussion. To their credit, though, the ladies have always unabashedly acknowledged the influences obvious in their music, notably The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and The Byrds.
Now, commemorating their 30th year anniversary, “retro” now includes The Bangles’ own back catalogue. The personnel has remained three-fourths the same as when they began: Susanna Hoffs (guitar) and sisters Vicki (guitar) and Debbie Peterson (drums); former bassist Michael Steele is the only original member to no longer perform with the group. For Sweetheart of the Sun, their first album in nearly eight years, The Bangles worked with Matthew Sweet who co-produced the sessions in his home studio. The resulting disc is “retro” indeed, bringing back memories of the ‘60s as well as The Bangles’ own hit-making career.
One strong suit of this album, as with all their releases, is having the three ladies trade lead vocal duties. This provides some diversity to the sound unified by their trademark harmonies. The lyrics also provide a sense of continuity to the songs. Most include images of eyes or the sun, and most play on the theme of lost love. All this is the case with “Annalee (Sweetheart Of The Sun),” the album’s guitar-hook opener. Likewise, “Lay Yourself Down” evokes The Beatles circa 1966 merged with the wistful vocals of the American girl groups that competed with the British Invasion. “Under A Cloud” and “What A Life” are more hard-edged, and “Sweet and Tender Romance” sounds like what the Judds might have done with punk-band support. Straight-up country stations may actually want to consider adding “One of Two” to their playlists.
Softer love songs include “I Will Never Be Through With You,” and the group gets a tad more sophisticated with the acoustic-based “Circles In The Sky.” Exquisite harmonizing distinguishes “Through Your Eyes,” which strongly echoes the guitar of “Norwegian Wood.” Reminding listeners The Bangles are primarily a rock band, they close the collection with a cover of The Nazz’s “Open My Eyes” (written by Todd Rundgren) in the same spirit the band showed in their 1987 re-working of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Hazy Shade of Winter.”
Using a term like “retro,” of course, leads one to question: With all their feet firmly planted in the past, have The Bangles matured as songwriters, singers, or musicians? What, if anything, is different from previous releases? For one thing, the ladies are far more mellow in their playing and reflective in their lyrics. There’s no mistaking The Bangles’ signature sound, but both their vocals and musicianship seem more cohesive now, more organically woven together. As their forte has always been simple songs with catchy melodies, the best news is that The Bangles can still deliver what they started all those years ago. While there’s nothing experimental or innovative here, the new tunes should be relished by old fans and bring on board new listeners as well.