September Gurls

Well, after an eight year wait, The Bangles finally released a new album this past Tuesday, September 27th. Entitled “Sweetheart Of The Sun,” it is notable, to me, in that it is their first album without bassist/vocalist Michael Steele….and that makes me strangely sad.

Sweetheart Of The Sun

"Sweetheart Of The Sun" by The Bangles

Even though I’ve never seen them live (which I’ve always regretted), The Bangles have always been one of my favorite groups. The fact that they are four very attractive women who play their own instruments and sing incredibly well doesn’t hurt, of course, but, more importantly, in their music lies a combination of elements that I always seek in those songs that I call my favorites: tasty hooks, memorable melodies, and soaring, resonant vocal harmonies. And while they’ve always been handy with a cover song (their version of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Hazy Shade of Winter” is probably one of the only covers ever recorded that I prefer more than the original), the originals that these ladies write themselves are just as good as anything out there.

From what I’ve heard of the new album, this happily remains true. Seemingly a little more laid back than previous releases, the lovely melodies and delicious harmonies are still there on “Sweetheart”….the songcraft has not suffered.  But something still seems missing. And I could sense it right from the moment I first saw the CD’s cover….and saw only three, not four, sets of legs.

I’ll admit right now that it’s probably a psychological thing. I knew before even listening that Michael Steele was not singing or playing bass on this record, and that fact, perhaps unfairly, automatically makes this new record rank a little lower in my mind. The harmonies still seem sweet, but not as full. I have become hyper-aware of each note the bass plays, and I find myself wondering how Michael would have done it. Also, perhaps most importantly, I wonder what new songs she might have written for this album, and how that would have altered the effort as a whole.

Michael Steele

Michael Steele

I’m sure even those who are big Bangles fans aren’t aware of all the songs that Ms. Steele has contributed to their catalog. One of the most interesting tunes on their best-known album, “Different Light,” was an atmospheric piece called “Following”. Featuring just an acoustic guitar, a haunting synthesizer patch, and Michael’s vocals, it created a mood unlike anything else on the record, and provided a nice bit of texture to the proceedings, enough so to earn it a spot on The Bangles “Greatest Hits” record. It was always one of my favorite tracks on that album, and, as that album was probably my favorite Bangles record (if due only to too many repeated listens to mention), that would seem to make “Following” one of my favorite Bangles songs. And so it is.

(On a side note, “Different Light” was also very deeply intertwined with my first significant relationship, and I still, to this day, sometimes think of that first girlfriend and her basement where we often hung out whenever I hear anything off of it. As a matter of fact, when the relationship ended, it became too painful to actually put the cassette – yes, I said cassette – in the tape player anymore, and so this album went ignored by me for many, many years afterwards. It also didn’t help that, since I had extra room on the end of the cassette on which I had copied the album from vinyl – yes, I said vinyl….what’s wrong? Am I dating myself??? – I had also placed Atlantic Starr’s “Always” which was “our song.” That one-two punch ensured a thick layer of dust would be gathering on that little cassette in the years following our break up….)

In 1988, “Everything” was released, which would be the last Bangles album for quite some time due to tensions and conflicts within the band. On this effort, Steele brought three tunes to the table, the poppy “Complicated Girl”, the moody “Something To Believe In”, and the rocking “Glitter Years”. Her voice was now becoming more of a presence on the records due to the increased instances of lead vocals, and the variety and texture that four lead singers provided to the album made it quite a joy to listen to.

When The Bangles regrouped in 2000 for the “Doll Revolution” recording sessions, Steele was there again with strong songwriting contributions: “Nickel Romeo”, “Between The Two”, and “Song For A Good Son”. But when the subsequent tour didn’t get off the ground in the way Steele was hoping (too few American dates, apparently interrupted by the other band members’ family commitments), she quit mid-tour. Although her last show with The Bangles was in 2004, her departure was not officially announced until May of 2005.

Despite this, I had hoped that when they finally got around to making another album, perhaps she would be involved.  Maybe they would call her up, and, even if she didn’t feel like touring, maybe she would record bass and vocals, or contribute some songs. Sadly, however, it seems this was not the case. The Bangles moved on as a group, hiring a male bass player to play live and on the album. And to be bluntly honest? It just doesn’t look as impressive or feel at all the same to look up on stage and not see four women playing their asses off, but rather three women and a guy in a suit. Not the same thing. It’s just…..not.

Ultimately, I know all of this shouldn’t really matter.  Ms. Hoffs and the Peterson sisters turn in a fine effort here, and they are, after all, the three original members of the band (the group was a trio for the first year or so, and Michael came along in their third year, replacing their first bassist), so I encourage you to go and take a listen to “Sweetheart Of The Sun” and try it out for yourselves. You may love it to death, and think to yourself, “What was that idiot on the blog talking about? This is the best!”

But for me? Knowing that Michael Steele is no longer part of the mix, it somehow just doesn’t seem fully like the real Bangles anymore. And the sad result there is that it now makes me view this new Bangles record in….well…..a different light.

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4 Responses to “September Gurls”

  1. Nice post! If you’re missing Michael, I seriously recommend checking out her Crash Wisdom material. CW were a solo band she put together in the mid-90s. They didn’t officially release anything but two acoustic gigs were bootlegged. (You can hear most of the tracks on YouTube now, too.) They include several unreleased songs, early versions of Nickel Romeo and Between The Two (with a completely different solo), some covers, and Michael sings/plays guitar on it all. And at the risk of sounding too much like a cheap plug, you might like http://www.mickisteele.net, a site I co-author that’s about her entire career and goes in depth. She’s played in a ton of bands over the years.

    • Don’t worry, I love cheap plugs! 😉 Thanks for reading and posting your comment, Shane! As it turns out, I did visit your website while doing some preliminary research to see if I could find any information about whether Michael had been contacted about being on the new Bangles album or not. It’s sad they have parted ways, but one never knows what the future holds…..in the meantime, I will indeed check out the Crash Wisdom material. I appreciate the recommendation. By the way, if you got a chance to listen to any of my music while you were on my blog, let me know what you think….I always enjoy feedback, good or bad. Take care, and thanks for stopping by!

  2. I always enjoy when you write about music. This was really informative and well written. Thank you for writing it and I do try to keep up with this when I can.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Jerry….that really means a lot. I try so hard to write about music often, but life often gets in my way….which is a damn shame, because I REALLY enjoy doing it. If only we got paid to write, eh? 😉

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