One of the things that first brought the members of the Bangles together was their love for the jangly guitar pop of the late ‘60s, and the band leans heavily on that style on Sweetheart of the Sun, their first studio album in eight years and their first since bassist Michael Steele’s retirement. Though Steele’s absence is noticeable, especially in the group’s lush vocal harmonies, the Bangles’ strong pop sensibilities are more than enough to carry the album, which boasts their most stripped-down and loosest performances since their debut.
Frontwoman Susanna Hoffs enlisted frequent collaborator and fellow power-pop aficionado Matthew Sweet to produce the album, and Sweet’s instincts for this kind of retro-styled material are spot-on. From the slithering guitar riffs and handclaps on “Under a Cloud” to the gentle piano backing and layered harmonies on “I’ll Never Be Through with You,” Sweet’s production is light-handed, and he exercises the meticulous attention of a true pop classicist. He knows how to emphasize a hook for maximum impact, as on the impossibly catchy opener “Anna Lee (Sweetheart of the Sun)” and rollicking “Ball & Chain,” without suffocating the band’s performances in studio polish.
To that end, the Bangles have rarely sounded more like a natural, organic band then they do here. Though they’re joined by bassist Derrick Anderson and keyboardist Greg Hilfman, it’s Vicki Peterson’s sturdy, full-bodied lead guitar riffs and Debbi Peterson’s unobtrusive percussion that are the foundation for each song. The melody and punchy arrangement of “What a Life” recall “Be With You,” the band’s last Top 40 single before their breakup in 1989, while their cover of the Nazz’s “Open My Eyes” rocks as hard as anything the band has ever recorded.
If there’s a knock on Sweetheart of the Sun, it’s in the individual lead vocals. While Hoffs’s instantly recognizable, sexy rasp remains intact, her performance on “Under a Cloud” is more than a bit thin: She simply doesn’t have the commanding presence here that she did on the Bangles’ ‘80s albums or even on her recent covers albums with Sweet. Vicki Peterson, unfortunately, fares even worse, betrayed by a shaky sense of pitch on most of her turns at the mic. When the trio sings together, they still sound fantastic, but only Debbi Peterson really carries her solo turns. That turns out to be a significant liability, detracting from the otherwise lush, immaculate sound of the record.
Still, while it may not be as perfect a pop album as All Over the Place or Different Light, the Bangles get an awful lot right on Sweetheart of the Sun. They could have easily spent the rest of their career playing “Manic Monday” and “Hazy Shade of Winter” on the nostalgia tour circuit, but it’s clear that they’re still committed to pushing themselves creatively.