In 2011, co-founder of The Bangles Debbi Peterson said in an interview with the website Pop Entertainment that she wished the band were known for something more than walking like Egyptians. At the time, Peterson was promoting the band’s album Sweetheart of the Sun and noted, “this album is more how the Bangles really are.” Clearly, if it wasn’t for that pesky Egyptian song playing like an Eternal Flame on those Manic Mondays, The Bangles’ brand of pop psychedelia would have endeared them to an indie pop crowd — but likely at the cost of their commercial success.
It was the commercial success they had for a decade that led to burnout by the end of the ‘80s. Once the band decided to call it quits, it allowed them to have lives outside of the routine of recording and touring. So, by the time they got together to discuss making a follow-up to 2003’s Doll Revolution in 2009, they had a lot of material left over from other projects to choose from. What ultimately ended up on Sweetheart of the Sun was 10 originals, two covers, and arguably one of the strongest records of their career. Suzanna Hoffs, Vicki Peterson, and Debbi Peterson didn’t have to prove anything on this record, and perhaps that’s why they sound so confident. There was no need for a hit single (though, it would have been nice), no music video shoots, no pressure to get on the road and promote the record to help boost sales. Instead they could take their time, choose songs that were strong, hire Matthew Sweet to help refine their sound, and head into the studio to lay down some tracks at a more leisurely pace. Oftentimes, taking too long to make a record can result in the finished piece feeling a little too overproduced and sterile. However, what The Bangles wrought on Sweetheart of the Sun is anything but. From the lead track, “Anna Lee (Sweetheart of the Sun)” to the last notes of “Open My Eyes” by Todd Rundgren’s band Nazz, the album has a very cohesive feel.
Inspired by the book Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller, “Anna Lee” represents a composite of those three trailblazing singer-songwriters that the band clearly feels a kinship with — hence the refrain before the chorus “We all wanna be.” The “quiet power, simple grace” of the title character of the song isn’t exactly the kind of women the members of The Bangles are. There’s more of a playfulness to their public image, but not far underneath they are very good musicians who can write infectious pop songs of a high calibre. Take “Under A Cloud,” a song that has more than an undercurrent of sadness underneath the wonderful harmonies the band is known for. Suzanna Hoffs co-wrote the song and sings lead with a kind of optimism that’s tempered by lyrics reflecting loneliness and heartbreak as she bails out “water from this lush lifeboat.” Musically, the band brings a lot of wonderful layers to the proverbial table. Vicki Peterson has always been a good guitarist who can both add needed color and command the stage with some rockin’ riffs. However, it’s the bass work of Derrick Anderson who really lifts the song (Bassist Michael Steele left the band midway through the Doll Revolution tour). The parts he composed provide an effective counterpoint to the main themes of the music. It’s truly a treat to hear this song in good headphones because the mix done by Jim Scott has so much separation that harkens back to some of the better albums from the late ‘60s to mid-’70s. And Hoffs vocals are brought right to the front without much reverb that it brings out the intimacy of the song in an effective way.
On “Ball N Chain,” they ditch the intimacy and go right for venom. Debbi Peterson wrote and sings on this ode to Mr. Wrong. Lyrically, it’s a list of grievances about how this guy is just the worst when it comes to relationships. There isn’t much to dissect here when it comes to the lyrics. Suffice to say that Peterson sums it up when she sings, There’s a thousand reasons why I can’t stay/And every one of them has your name. More heartache comes with “I’ll Never Be Through With You” — noted for it being co-written by Hoffs, Vicki Peterson, and Charlotte Caffey from the Go Go’s. This song has a kind of world-weariness to it when Hoffs sings, Darling, I will never be through with you. It’s not the lyric so much, but the way her voice goes slightly hoarse as she’s belting it out. Sure, they could have done another take so it would have been cleaner, but keeping the rough edges to the vocal take really solidifies the mixed emotions the narrator is going through with this relationship (And I wish you could love me/Like I love you/And I wish you would leave me/But I’ll never be through with you).
When the opening notes of “Mesmerized” starts, it’s clear that The Bangles are going back to that paisley style that informed their debut album, All Over The Place. The psychedelic flourishes, the emphasis on harmonies, and dedication to crafting pure pop of a long gone era is impressive as it is catchy. The same can be said of “Circle in the Sky.” It’s almost a campfire song that begs for a sing-along. The ladies then bust out one of two covers on the record with “Sweet and Tender Romance” by The McKinleys — a duo from Scotland who recorded this 1964 single that was featured on the ITV program Ready Steady Go! The Bangles’ version is a pretty faithful cover, even down to Vicki Peterson’s remake of Jimmy Page’s lead break on the original single. It’s a nice deep cut from the ‘60s that show The Bangles are real fans of the era.
The original songs resume with “Lay Yourself Down,” a mid-tempo number that is noted for a drumline featuring Debbi Peterson, Evan Peters, and John Cowsill — who, yes, is from the band The Cowsills and is married to guitarist, Vicki Peterson. “One of Two” is another mid-tempo song sung by Vicki, but it kind of drags because it follows “Lay Yourself Down” that also featured Vicki, so it doesn’t stand out as much as it could have if placed somewhere else in the track ordering. Things pick up with “What a Life” (also sung by Vicki), but the rhythm is more chuga-chuga, and the lead break on a mandolin gives an otherwise ho-hum song a nice flourish. “Through Your Eyes” gets back to the ladies doing what they do best, harmonize. And while the song is close to a ballad, it has so many nicely layered vocals parts that it really feels epic at times — especially when Greg Hilfman adds some keyboard that sounds like bagpipes. The album closer, “Open My Eyes” is a fitting finale to a very strong album. Originally written and recorded in 1968 by Nazz, a band started by Todd Rundgren, the song opens with slightly altered chord progression from The Who’s “I Can’t Explain” with a very ‘60s walk up on the low E and A strings that takes the songs in a different direction from The Who. As I wrote at the outset, this is a great song to end the record. It has a lot of energy, and is enough of a deep track that it shows The Bangles aren’t tossing off a cover of a ‘60s song just to show they can cover a proven hit like they did with “Hazy Shade of Winter.” Nope, they chose a song that stiffed on the charts. But hearing it now, The Bangles have shown it has legs and should have done better than it did. Fun fact: the flip side to the original Nazz single of “Open My Eyes” was “Hello It’s Me” — a song that Rundgren would have a lot of success with when he re-recorded it four years later in 1972.
While Sweetheart of the Sun didn’t do all that well on the Billboard 200 charts in 2011 (peaking at 148), it’s kind of a sleeper album with some real gems that demonstrate — even after being pigeonholed by three major hits in the 1980s — The Bangles are a group of singer-songwriters who know how to craft catchy retro-pop that reflects their musical lineage: The Beach Boys, The Byrds, and Buffalo Springfield.