The Bangles Are Back, And Still Clever As Ever
When they started out at the beginning of the 1980s, The Bangles' members were never part of the Los Angeles punk scene that slightly predated them, with bands such as X, the Germs and the other significant all-girl bands of that era, The Runaways and The Go-Gos. The Bangles were always more interested in jangling guitar sounds, plaintive harmonies, catchy choruses and wistful melancholy. If one of the band's biggest hits, "Walk Like an Egyptian," was a novelty tune, the rest of its catalog was part of an older Los Angeles tradition: the 1960s pop of bands such as The Byrds, The Grass Roots and The Mamas and the Papas.
The band has said that "Anna Lee" was inspired in part by Sheila Weller's recent book Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation. The Anna Lee to whom this hymn is offered is a kind of composite sketch of the female singer-songwriters to whom The Bangles feel a kinship. You can hear that influence in a song on the new album called "Circle in the Sky," written and sung by Vicki Peterson with backing vocals by her husband, John Cowsill. He's yet another connection to the '60s as drummer in the family pop band The Cowsills.
At the height of their '80s stardom, The Bangles were writing their own material, as well as covering songs offered to them by admirers ranging from Prince (his "Manic Monday") to Jules Shear (his yearning ballad "If She Knew What She Wants"). As attractive women at a time when all-female bands were a novelty, and as makers of pop music as opposed to supposedly more "serious" rock, the band didn't get the respect it deserved. But in their home base of Los Angeles, its members were the doyennes of a post-punk music scene that came to be called the Paisley Underground, along with bands such as The 3 O'Clock, Dream Syndicate and Green on Red. The Bangles capture a little bit of this era in a song on Sweetheart of the Sun called "What a Life."
Sweetheart of the Sun has been co-produced by master pop singer-songwriter Matthew Sweet, and includes a cover of Todd Rundgren's "Open My Eyes," a song The Bangles have been playing since the '80s. The greatest accomplishment of this new album is that it's never necessary to have heard a single Bangles song before right now to appreciate the craft and cleverness of the music they're making. Good pop-rock conquers all time and space.