VIDEO: Deborah Harry, "Two Times Blue"
Speaking over the phone last Thursday from New York, Deborah Harry admitted that there was no method to the madness involved in making her new solo album, Necessary Evil (Five Seven Music). “There was just madness,” the Blondie frontwoman said with a laugh, adding that the CD’s stylistic diversity — Evil features bubbly new-wave rave-ups, exotic electropop excursions, and more — most likely came about because “there was no overall plan” to its manufacture; she simply felt like “exorcising some demons” and relished the “opportunity to be creative.” She added, “I feel comfortable in my own skin.” And in the larger cultural landscape? “I don’t know if I feel like I fit in anywhere.”
Maybe she doesn’t, but Harry isn’t alone, since this month also brings the release of new solo albums by Annie Lennox (of the Eurythmics) and Siouxsie Sioux (of the Banshees). And the three CDs suggest an appealing if unlikely sisterhood of middle-aged punk-pop-soul-rock mavericks.
Necessary Evil follows a few seasons of declining returns from Blondie, whose revival-circuit shows have begun to bear the sad scent of desperation. (Indeed, Harry revealed that though the band are taking a break from touring, Blondie are still available for private parties and corporate events.) So it’s a relief that Necessary Evil doesn’t sound like the lifeless cash-in its title implies. Written with and produced by Super Buddha, a Brooklyn-based production duo whose MySpace page makes a dubious claim to crunk and hyphy expertise, the album opens with the excellent “Two Times Blue,” which sounds like Gwen Stefani fronting Celebrity Skin–era Hole. Harry helped invent the sweet-and-sour shtick that’s since become a staple of modern female pop, and it’s gratifying to hear her command the mixture here.
“Two Times Blue” is as good as Necessary Evil gets, but the album’s first half does offer a handful of highlights. In “School for Scandal,” Harry rides a gritty electro-garage groove while threatening to “bash my head against the wall” to signal her disgust with tabloid journalism. “If I Had You” is a crunchy post-Alanis power ballad with a delicious falsetto-like vocal hook. “Deep End” has a floor-filling dance-rock thump and digital-fuzz guitars the DFA probably wouldn’t mind jacking. But as Evil drags on, so do the beats — and the melodies, and the lyrics. Although “Whiteout” comes across as an all-grown-up take on Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” you have to whack your way through a lot of filler to get there — like “What Is Love,” in which Harry promises, “I’ll be talking and texting till what seems like the end of time” over a wan slow-jam throb that threatens to do the same.
Lennox isn’t as concerned as Harry with demonstrating her stylistic breadth on Songs of Mass Destruction (Arista), the Glen Ballard–produced follow-up to 2003’s Bare. That album stuck to a sober, stripped-down mode meant to reflect its accounts of emotional crises; Mass Destruction heralds a return to the amped-up electro-gospel sound Lennox popularized alongside Dave Stewart in Eurythmics hits like “Missionary Man” and in such earlier solo material as “Walking on Broken Glass.” With the bombastic Ballard on board, each of the 11 tunes here builds to a predictable production-number climax. (The CD’s title may be overblown, but it’s not inaccurate.) Yet thanks to Lennox’s still-thrilling vocals, the pomp and circumstance never feels like empty theatrics. In “Ghosts in My Machine,” the diva-sized wailing is paired with down-and-dirty synth-guitar noise; “Coloured Bedspread” could be “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” 24 years later.
Mass Destruction’s centerpiece is “Sing,” which a member of the AIDS-relief group the Generics introduces: “This is a call for the national implementation of mother-to-child transmission-prevention programs in all the maternity hospitals in South Africa.” (Bravo for the specificity, always welcome when it comes to issue songs.) “Sing” boasts an all-star “We Are the World”–style choir with Madonna, KT Tunstall, Sarah McLachlan, Melissa Etheridge, Gladys Knight, Joss Stone, and 17 others. And no, the pomp and circumstance isn’t spared on this one. But it’s not just the gravity of AIDS that keeps the tune grounded, it’s also Lennox’s elegant lyrics, which redeem shopworn ideas about female empowerment.
Harry told me one thing that links her, Lennox, and Siouxsie Sioux is their common background in urban areas and how that has an impact on a musician’s ear for atmosphere. That rings true nowhere more than on Mantaray (W14/Decca), Siouxsie’s solo debut after a long career recording with the Banshees and the Creatures. This is a dark, funky album full of clanging percussion, smeared textures, and distorted guitars. If age has cooled the big-city burn with which Siouxsie used to reflect the grim tumult of late-’70s London, Mantaray doesn’t show it.
Unlike Harry and Lennox — and despite countless instances of her latter-day influence — Siouxsie has never become a mainstream pop star, operating instead at the margins in a way that’s allowed her to follow her inspiration with little regard for commercial appeal. That could be one reason her album offers less in the way of hooks or catchy choruses than Necessary Evil or Songs of
Mass Destruction. But despite its thorny art-rock surfaces, Mantaray still enjoys a kind of high-gloss glamor: these are sensual, darkly comic goth-cabaret tunes out of a Tim Burton film or something starring Helena Bonham Carter. Listen to “Sea of Tranquility,” in which a death-rattle beat shuffles away beneath sawing strings and murky electric-guitar reverb while Siouxsie purrs sexily about “forensic traces” and “footsteps on an ocean bed.” Or check out “Here Comes That Day,” a stomping big-band number where Siouxsie can’t hide the glee she finds in announcing the impending arrival of “rain on your parade” as the Mission: Impossible theme disintegrates behind her. Harry may admit to having no method in her madness, but on Mantaray Siouxsie’s cunning — and her demons — are as plain as day.