Bright Lights, the new album by Susanna Hoffs, and her first in nine years, is an unexpected treat for me. Its release — on Hoffs’ own label, Baroque Folk — was only announced a few weeks ago. From what I can gather from interviews and from Hoffs’ social media, she experienced some frustration in getting it out into the world, probably due to the draconian treatment of independent musicians and labels by streaming platforms.
But in a larger sense it’s unexpected because I wasn’t expecting my high-school obsession with the Bangles to flare up again this year, for the first time in 30 years. But it did, and it’s been a joy and a trip. This might sound weird, and if you’re not familiar with their stuff outside of their pop hits, it takes a bit of explaining (which I plan to do in a future essay), but it’s no exaggeration to say that without the Bangles’ influence, I wouldn’t have become a music fan, or at least not the same kind of music fan. They are my origin story, the source of everything for me — they are the ones who got me into alternative music, who made me want to check out R.E.M. and the Velvet Underground and the Ramones, who made music into a passion for me instead of a pastime. No matter how little their music has in common with the sounds I’ve played as a DJ and collected and written about in all the years since, the Bangles kicked it all off for me.
It might have to do with the months of lockdown we went through here in Sydney this winter — diving back into an old musical obsession was as good a coping mechanism as any. But for whatever reason, one day I suddenly found myself in the mood to revisit their 80s discography, which was so transformative for me as a teenager. I was astonished to find that these old albums, in particular their amazing, criminally underrated 1984 debut LP All Over the Place, hit me so hard again. And I found myself back in fan mode, looking up live performances and obscure B-sides, reading old articles, and catching up with their frequently wonderful 21st century work. Excavating a primal influence, buried in my memories for 30 years but never forgotten or disavowed.
So, if not for all that, I might not even know this album existed. I’m glad I do, because it’s a really lovely, impeccably chosen collection of covers played and sung with lots of passion and skill.
The Bangles broke up acrimoniously in 1989, not long after scoring their second U.S. #1 hit with “Eternal Flame,” in part because of the tensions created by Hoffs’ burgeoning stardom and undue share of the band’s media attention. It was acrimonious enough that they spent much of the 90s not even talking to each other. They patched it up and reformed in 1999, and have been together in some form or fashion ever since (though bassist and icon of cool Michael Steele permanently left the band in 2004). They’ve released two independent albums in that time; the most recent one was Sweetheart of the Sun in 2011.
Hoffs released three solo albums before Bright Lights. The first, 1991’s When You’re a Boy, was her big shot at post-Bangles stardom, but it was universally acknowledged as mediocre, and sold poorly. That must have been bitterly disappointing, and seems to have derailed things for Hoffs; her next, self-titled solo album didn’t come until five years later. It also didn’t sell much, but it’s a much better album, a nice take on 90s alternative with a Bangly jangle-rock vibe. Her third solo LP, Someday, came 16 long years after that, in 2012. By then, a more mature Hoffs seems to have been resigned to independently releasing music far from the glare of the pop spotlight — and the result was some of her best, most relaxed and assured work, a splendid update of the lush, orchestral pop of the late 60s and early 70s. Bright Lights is similarly great.
If you ask me, she deserves a lot of credit for hanging on all this time, doing her own thing in a sexist and ageist music industry and staying true to her roots.
These days, Hoffs is mainly known in pop culture for “Eternal Flame” and for her coquettish eye roll in the “Walk Like an Egyptian” video (which she says was her method of dealing with stage fright). She’s also known as a sex object — the cute one in the band, once courted by Prince, as famous for her miniskirts as for her beloved Rickenbacker. “Still world historically hot,” as Tom Breihan from Stereogum recently described her (in a Number Ones column otherwise staunchly defending the genius of “Eternal Flame”). To be fair, Hoffs clearly enjoys this and plays it up a bit on her social media, which is her choice. But it’s also a huge bummer and incredibly tedious to see an article about her online, or look up her music on Youtube, and inevitably half the comments are dudes drooling over her looks. It’s relentless and exhausting.
In reality, Hoffs never wore the mantle of either pop star or sex symbol very comfortably. If you look at the Bangles’ live performances on Youtube, she hardly ever talks or engages the crowd, especially compared to how animated and vocal Vicki Peterson is. She’s naturally very shy and retiring; and it was never a good fit for the Bangles’ management or label to try to make her the star. On her social media, she talks frankly and endearingly about suffering anxiety and being terrible at interviews. I think this is one reason When You’re a Boy flopped; despite everyone’s expectations, she was never going to be a Belinda Carlisle. At heart, Hoffs is a folkie, a child of the 60s; her idols are Joni Mitchell and Carole King. Look at the name of her label: Baroque Folk.
This aesthetic really shows on Bright Lights. The sound is what you might expect from a veteran singer-songwriter from L.A. covering a bunch of classics from the 60s and 70s. It’s warm and inviting and guitary. It’s bright, if not always sunny. It’s gentle and folky for long stretches — but it also rocks. Some tracks have a very 70s country-rock vibe (I’ve often thought that if Hoffs were raised anywhere east of Brentwood she’d have been an amazing country singer). At other points it even gets psychedelic, true to Hoffs’ garage-rock influences. There’s some really nice string accompaniment. The production, by longtime Aimee Mann collaborator Paul Bryan, is terrific, with a depth and crispness that really serves the material and an unexpected thump to the low end.
Hoffs’ vocals are great: they still have that sweet vulnerability that made her voice so distinctive in the 80s, but with an added raspiness and melancholy resignation that comes with age. This combo really suits her folk-rocky selection of covers. She was never a powerful singer but she sings with character and confidence.
There’s a complete lack of concern for current styles or trends on Bright Lights. And yet, in some way it’s also on a continuum with the introspective, 70s-influenced, singer-songwritery music being made these days by younger, hipper artists from Lorde to Courtney Barnett. I have a feeling a lot of people who won’t ever hear about this album would like it if they gave it a chance.
Susanna Hoffs really loves doing covers. She recorded three entire albums of covers with Matthew Sweet between 2006 and 2013. The Under the Covers albums are uneven in quality, ranging from outstanding (Hoffs’ vocal on Fairport Convention’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” is devastating; and I love their jangly cover of the English Beat’s “Save It for Later”) to more obvious selections of songs we didn’t really need covers of (“Monday Monday,” “You’re So Vain”).
I imagine Hoffs and Sweet released those three albums at least in part because covers are a safe bet; and that probably also explains why Hoffs’ first album in nine years is a covers album. But there’s a context to consider.
The Bangles always had one of the strongest covers games in the music business. They had (and still have) a way of picking great covers and then absolutely owning them. Everyone acknowledges that “Hazy Shade of Winter” is one of the greatest covers of all time (immensely gratifying for me, because out of all their big hits, that one is closest to their early garage-rock sound). They have many other great, flawlessly selected covers throughout their discography and their repertoire — Big Star’s “September Gurls,” Jules Shear’s “If She Knew What She Wants,” their smokin’ live covers of Love’s “7 and 7 Is” and the Yardbirds’ “I’m Not Talkin’.”
Because of their love of covers, and because a few of their biggest hits were written by others, they have often been accused of not writing their own songs — as recently as last year, by Gina Schock of the Go-Go’s, of all people, in this Indiewire interview. This is just maddeningly untrue. They wrote the vast majority of their material themselves; it’s unfair and frankly sexist that they’re dismissed in this way.
Their covers were part of their project of reviving the sound of 60s garage and underground rock. To my mind their crate-digging versions of obscure gems by the Seeds or New Zealand garage band the La De Da’s were in the same spirit as blues covers, or hip-hop samples of 70s funk. It was a method of establishing a vibe. And the fact that they are women always added something to their covers of songs by male artists — for example Paul Revere and the Raiders’ “Steppin’ Out,” in which the protagonist threateningly admonishes an unfaithful lover, has a completely different dynamic when Vicki Peterson sings it.
Whatever Hoffs’ reasons for releasing a covers album now — I don’t exactly blame her if it’s a way for a veteran independent artist to get a foothold in the brutal streaming market — I’m happy to report that Bright Lights is more in that Bangles tradition of thoughtful, artful covers, and much stronger than any of the Under the Covers entries. It’s filled with creatively arranged, off-the-wall selections from artists like Syd Barrett, Chris Bell of Big Star, Badfinger, the Monkees and Richard and Linda Thompson. Maybe the most “obvious” cover on it is Nick Drake’s “One of These Things First,” and honestly Hoffs kills that one. Her vocal on it is so delicate and lovely and the piano accompaniment is gorgeous.
Quite a few tracks on the album are by artists who died young, several of whom struggled with depression or mental illness — Drake, Barrett, and Badfinger’s Pete Ham among them. “I didn’t actually see the big picture of that until I looked at the whole track list,” Hoffs says. “It was subconscious. Yet I’ve always been drawn to songs that were intensely emotional.” There’s a definite sense of autumnal melancholy on the album despite its warm fuzziness.
The album starts out with “Time Will Show the Wiser,” by 60s psych-rock band the Merry-Go-Round. This is an interesting and telling choice; the Merry-Go-Round’s “Live” has long been one of the best songs in the Bangles’ repertoire (the recorded version appears on All Over the Place). Hoffs’ version of “Time Will Show the Wiser” is more rocking than the loopy, string-heavy original; and honestly, in that typical Bangles fashion, it’s superior, with its chugging Modern Lovers-ish midtempo rhythm, Hoffs’ spine-tingling vocals and trippy, distorted harmonies on the pre-chorus (I think she’s done her own harmonies here), and terrific guitar work (by Rusty Anderson, a veteran member of Paul McCartney’s band). The original was sung by a young man in a foolish, even destructive love affair, talking about time and wisdom in a far-off, abstract way; coming from a 62-year-old woman it has a very different feel. I love how Hoffs doesn’t change the gender of the song’s romantic subject, so that she sings “I’ve fallen in love with a girl that’s not mine.” She does that at several points on this album; as far as I’m concerned that’s the only way to handle a cover by an artist of a different gender and it just makes me happy that Hoffs is hip to that.
On Paul Revere and the Raider’s “Him or Me — What’s It Gonna Be,” not only does she keep all the pronouns the same but, again, as on the Bangles’ old Paul Revere cover, the male narrator’s confrontational voice is subverted.
Richard and Linda Thompson’s “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” is effectively the title track and comes at a peak point halfway through the album. Hoffs brings a lot of urgency to the wistful narrative of a big night out (“gonna drink till Monday comes in sight”), backed up by haunting harmonies and a thumping slow country-rock groove.
There’s also a country feel to the album’s first single, Badfinger’s “Name of the Game,” which features a great guest vocal by Aimee Mann — another artist whose 80s success was followed by a circuitous, decades-long path of doing her own thing on the independent circuit. This is a stunning cover; I love the strings, and way the echo on one of the guitars suggests a steel guitar (if it’s not actually a steel guitar?). When Hoffs and Mann come together on the chorus it makes me wish they would start a band together.
Another key track is the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale.” VU covers have been important for Hoffs since her career began. Her first band, in the late 70s, was a duo with Rain Parade and Mazzy Star guitarist David Roback (RIP), when they were both at Berkeley (and also dating). They never got past the demo stage, but it was still a very formative collaboration. Working on lots of Velvet Underground covers, they developed the slow, dreamy alt-folk style that Roback eventually became famous for. Roback and Hoffs briefly reunited and did an absolutely gorgeous cover of the VU’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror” for the ad-hoc Rainy Day project in 1984; the Bangles regularly interpolate “I’m Waiting for the Man” live; and Hoffs covered “Sunday Morning” with Sweet in 2006.
By covering “Femme Fatale” now, Hoffs is calling back to all that; and sure enough, her version is very sloowwww and languid and very Mazzy Star. It’s a nice tip of the hat to her late friend and partner.
I love her cover of Syd Barrett’s “No Good Trying,” which closes out the album. If you’d told me when I was a kid that one of my musical heroes would still be at it at the age of 62, and that she’d be doing a rocking cover of Syd Barrett, accompanied by trippy analog synths that make it sound a bit like early Happy Mondays or OK Computer-era Radiohead, it would have made me jump for joy. This psychedelic mode ought to be a pleasant shock for anyone who only knows her for “Eternal Flame.”
My favorite track — and the only one that dates from later than the 70s — is her version of Prince’s “Take Me with U.” This happens to be my favorite Prince song, and Hoffs’ version is a great tribute to the artist who wrote “Manic Monday,” which was so integral to her career. (Prince is actually the one who got me into the Bangles in the first place.) In place of the intricate new wave/psych-rock groove of the original, the backing instruments are stripped down to only an acoustic guitar and some accompanying strings. It’s a beautiful approach; I suspect Prince, who loved to do covers himself, would have approved. Hoffs nails the enchanting combination of sexual tension, playfulness and joy in the vocal; she’s always been someone who clearly feels joy in singing — you can often hear her smiling when she sings — and that’s apparent here. But there’s an undertone of sadness thanks to the acoustic instrumentation and the fact of Prince’s death. There’s no danger of this one surpassing the timeless original, but as a cover, it’s sheer perfection. And that’s true of just about all of the songs on Bright Lights.