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(Baroque Folk 78253 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/17/2012)
Being of a certain age, I am rather fond of well-made retro music, when younger performers do an impressive job of emulating music that was popular in many cases, long before they were born. This album review series has focused on its share of retro albums. I am particularly drawn to groups that apply the energy of youth, and in some ways a kind of naivete of the some of the warts of the original recordings, to come up with music that is both creative and likely to appeal across generations. Of course, many of the original performers are still around, and while some are still showing notable creativity, all too many are in some ways impeded by having been there in the first place and trying to maintain all the details of the original sound, and so it ends up being a kind of oldies show, even though the material may be new.
Retro is hardly a new phenomenon, and there are several generations of performers who over the years have looked back a generation or so for their inspiration. Many are now forgotten, but there are still a few who manage to put their spin on retro sound without it's being a verbatim recitation of the old source material. This week we have a member of one of the first generations of Beatles-influenced retro bands, who has just released a fine album that captures the musical ingredients without being slavishly imitative. It's Susanna Hoffs, and her new CD is called Someday.
Susanna Hoffs is best known as one of the members of the all-female rock band The Bangles, which emerged in the early 1980s, and who are still together from time to time. Back in the day, the Bangles were probably the best Beatles-inspired band on the popular scene, with jangly guitars and vocal harmonies, that used just the right Beatles-influence intervals, even though all the vocals were female. The Bangles landed several chart-topping singles, such as Walk Like an Egyptian, Going Down to Liverpool, and their version of the Paul Simon song Hazy Shade of Winter. With family connections to the film industry, with Ms. Hoffs' mother and husband being Hollywood directors, the Bangles found their music in a number of hit films, including the "Austin Powers" movies, and she also played parts in films.
The Bangles broke up for a while and Ms. Hoffs has released a couple of solo albums, along with side projects that partially grew out of film work. Someday is her third solo album since 1991. She worked with producer Mitchell Froom, who wrote string arrangements for almost every track. But it's not the heavy overproduced pop you might expect from having orchestral instruments present, but more like what the Beatles did back in the day, with smaller groups. In fact, like the work of the Bangles, Ms. Hoffs' new CD owes much to the musical spirit of the Fab Four, with their rare combination of a hummable pop sound with lots of interesting musical details going on. The lyrics are mostly love songs, but there's a slightly bittersweet quality to most of them. Ms. Hoffs co-wrote all the songs with other composers, most frequently Andrew Brassell. And like most of the classic albums of the day, the songs are succinct, and even though there are ten of them, the CD times in at barely more than a half hour. But I suppose, it follows one of the rules of show business, "leave them wanting more." The whole album is superbly executed, with appealing material, Ms. Hoffs' pleasing vocals, and production and orchestrations that are the essence of good taste.
Leading off is one of those nicely-crafted songs, November Sun. It's one those of the tracks with happy uplifting music and lyrics that are rather melancholy. <<>>
Also with a decidedly retro direction is a piece called Always Enough, in this case with a more folk-influenced sound. <<>>
With less of Ms. Hoffs' trademark Beatles influence is Picture Me, which recalls the 1960s pop from this side of the Atlantic. <<>>
On the other hand, the kind of neo-psychedelic late Beatles approach is at the core of the song called Holding my Breath. It's very nicely done. <<>>
The old folk-rock scene also provides some inspiration to Ms. Hoffs on the her CD. Raining evokes a little influence from the Byrds along with rather classic-style lyrics. <<>>
Another highlight of the album is what turns out to be one is one of its sadder tracks. All I Need is a kind of classic song of lovers pulled asunder, with the orchestrations being particularly nice. <<>>
Also in the appealing sad-song category is a piece called Regret. Ms. Hoffs manages to make some unhappy lyrics into a pretty song. <<>>
The CD ends with a decidedly more positive message. True is an attractive waltz pledging fidelity in a relationship. <<>>
A hard-nosed critic might say of Susanna Hoffs' new CD Someday that there is hardly an original note on it. The song topics have all been explored many times before, the music has many of the stylistic ingredients and some of the quirks of Beatles-era pop from more than 45 years ago. And at age 53, Ms. Hoffs, who by the way still looks terrific, is not exactly one of those young artists who brings a cross-generational spin to the retro sound. But her album is so nicely done, and nearly perfectly executed, that it is a definite piece of art. This kind of music still can sound fresh, especially to those of a certain generation, when it's done as tastefully as it is here, with fine musicianship, nicely-written songs that sound familiar but are not really imitative, and production that somehow manages to sound understated, despite the orchestrations on almost every track. Special kudos to producer Mitchell Froom for that aspect.
Our grade for sound quality is about an A-minus. Ms. Hoffs' vocals are well recorded, the string arrangements are kept subtle in the mix and the sound is generally clean. But the CD still suffers, as most do these days, from heavy-handed volume compression that makes the varied arrangement all come out at about the same volume with little ebb and flow.
Thirty years ago Susanna Hoffs and the other members of the Bangles did a great job of creating early retro-pop. Now in 2012, Ms. Hoffs is still at it, with Someday being one of her best recordings yet, Bangles included.
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