Partners in Crime

Susanna Hoffs
Susanna Hoffs
(London)

Bad pop songs never die, they just get banished to remote parts of the world where people's tastes are less developed. Thus it was on a recent rip to Finland when I heard the Bangles' appallingly bad 1988 hit "Eternal Flame" no fewer than three times in 48 hours--once in a bar, once in the airport, and once at the public swimming pool.

Actually, it's a bit ironic that this untypically melodramatic tripe is what has lingered on, since the Bangles actually turned in two and a half great LPs before that excrescence stank them out of America (and out of existence). In fact, the half--a 1982 EP titled The Bangles--was one of the most promising recordings of the decade. Plopped down in the middle of a harrowingly bad time for rock, The Bangles and its follow-up All Over the Place featured wonderful original compositions ("Hero Takes a Fall," "Real World," "Mary Street"). So it was hard to understand why every single subsequent Bangles hit released after those two recordings ("If She Knew What She Wants," "Going Down to Liverpool," "Hazy Shade of Winter," "Walk Like an Egyptian" and "Manic Monday") was written by others (Jules Shear, Kimberley Rew, Paul Simon, Liam Sternberg and The Artist Formerly Known As . . . , respectively).

Except for lead singer Susanna Hoffs' work on the obscure but magical Rainy Day album--the 1983 collaboration of L.A.'s so-called Paisley Underground bands, on which she performed Lou Reed's "I'll Be Your Mirror" and Bob Dylan's "I'll Keep It Within Me"--the Bangles' collaborations with a steady stream of producers and songwriters got progressively weaker throughout the '80s. And yet Hoffs doesn't seem to have learned her lesson. Like her first solo LP, 1991's When You're a Boy, Hoffs' second, eponymous solo album is a mass of crack (and Cracker) co-writers, including David Lowery, Sparklehorse's Mark Linkous, David Baerwald and David Kitay (the latter two of the infamous Sheryl Crow-Tuesday Night Music Club connection). But it is still the covers--of the Lightning Seeds' "All I Want," as well as two "secret" tracks, "To Sir With Love" and "Stuck in the Middle With You"--that shine.

The latter two songs seem to be barbs aimed at Crow, who couldn't sing "To Sir" if she tried and whose hit "All I Wanna Do" was often compared to Stealers Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle," but even without the point being underlined and boldfaced, it's clear that Hoffs has strengths that Crow could only dream of--namely, a singing voice that brooks no criticism. In addition to the warm, distinctive timbre of her voice, she can crack any song's essential emotion as though it were a nut. She really is an extraordinary interpreter, but, alas, her own songwriting leaves a lot to be desired. On one song, "King of Tragedy," she describes a girl as "a cross between Emma Peel, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kathie Lee," a combination that evokes very little and doesn't exactly scan. Even at her best, Hoffs is only able to tell us painful truths about herself: "I'm feeling so old and naive at the very same time/I had no idea if I could even talk to a guy."

But Hoffs has always had a distinctly unriotous take on love, one that is personal, girlish and utterly banal; time and again she sounds as if she has no inner life beyond a roll call of easy-to-spot boyfriends. (The guy in "Those Days Are Over," who was "written off in 1990" but has since made good, sounds like former flame David Roback of Mazzy Star.) As a songwriter, Hoffs seems apprised of fewer chords than ever, and her subtext--the utter necessity of boyfriends--is far more poignant when seen in light of the slew of co-writers and producers who have helped her create such slight stuff over the years.

To give Hoffs credit, musically she is far more anchored, having stuck firmly to Beatlesque pop sound through thick and thin--and when the Bangles first came on the scene, it was a very thin time for that indeed. "Beekeeper's Blues" is positively Oasisesque, and there's a song here titled "Weak With Love" that's about John Lennon's death and is no more or less embarrassing than the Cranberries' "I Just Shot John Lennon." In fact, Hoffs' plaintive cry of her brother's name--"Jesse!"--midsong stands up to all the best corny moments in pop: "Shannon," "Wildfire," "Chestnut Mare" and so forth.

Now that Oasis has triumphed with a similar-sounding Beatles jones, Hoffs has a better chance of making it with her deeply felt jangle-pop. But one can't help but be struck by the L.A.-inspired shallowness of the Brentwood-bred Hoffs that permeates both her outlook on life and her album. In some ways, this LP is highly reminiscent of those mid-'70s session-rock records by people like J.D. Souther and Nicolette Larson. All the songs here are produced to within an inch of their lives--it's hard to believe they're not in the hands of Waddy Wachtel; although, come to think of it, Kitay and Baerwald may be the Wachtel and Souther of the '90s. Many of these overproduced songs--all ballad-paced, if not actual ballads--go on too long, which is particularly noticeable given the clarity of Hoffs' voice and the thinness of the material.

In point of fact, Susanna Hoffs provides a good lesson in the dangers of feminine humility. Despite Hoffs' propensity to lean on guys, they clearly haven't served her well either musically or emotionally, and her disillusion with men seems boundless, from the guy in "Beekeeper's Blues" who only calls when he wants money to the guy in "Grand Adventure" who she admits is a pretentious phony. Finally, on "Eyes of a Baby," she sings--and not for the first time, either--that "anything is better then being alone." That may well describe what's wrong with Susanna Hoffs' career. To her, anything is better than going it alone--including selling herself short.

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