March is all-women month at Alternative Sounds, being that part of the year when we celebrate International Women's Day, which is on the 8th. I thought I'd make a conscious attempt to increase the representation of female artists in this blog. This first installment consists of artists from the 80s. The next one will be from the 90s, followed by women of folk and women from around the world.
all i want : susanna hoffs
Before there was Lisa Loeb, before there was Natalie Imbruglia, before there were Frente!, Luscious Jackson and The Corrs, there was Susanna Hoffs. The most prominent one-fourth of The Bangles was the original pop-rock sweetheart, who exuded vulnerable sexuality with her delicately saccharine voice and wistful acoustic guitar. To someone growing up in the 80s and who was just beginning to form his own hormonally influenced notion of an ideal woman, Susanna Hoffs was the definitive girlfriend material. Madonna was too wild. Cyndi Lauper was too weird. Bananarama were just too...bleached. With her hoop earrings, tapered jeans and Aqua Net-architectured curls, Hoffs came out of VH1 and MTV like a singing porcelain doll, a small, shapely creature with the face of an angel, graced by a full set of lips that broke into a disarming smile, and wide eyes that charmed every time they half-closed. In other words, Susanna Hoffs was the first female artist that gave me the bone. She came to her peak in 1989 when the band released Eternal Flame – that irresistibly mushy ballad to undying love, the first three words of which provoke a universal sigh. But at age 48 – basking in the acclaim of Under The Covers, her 2006 album of duets with Matthew Sweet – Hoffs is still beguiling as ever, outlasting her 90s facsimiles, while her voice has hardly changed. I'm posting her 1996 cover of the Lightning Seeds classic All I Want, which she manages to make cute and edgy with her trademark rasp at the chorus. She only changes the instrumentation, giving it a minimalist treatment but keeping to the pace and form of the original. Best line: Confidence, coincidence, call it a sin, it's just like people say. Best part: I love the drums at the intro and the jangle of acoustic guitar at the first chorus.
soap and water : suzanne vega
If you're not new to this blog, you may have noticed the new personality in the header art. Why didn't I think of putting Suzanne Vega up there in the first place? I've been a fan since Luka, which I realized even at 13 or 14 was a remarkable song. I had been exposed to pop music dealing with social issues before, or since I cared enough to actually mull over the lyrics – from famine (Do They Know It's Christmas?) to war (State of the Nation) to teen pregnancy (Papa Don't Preach) – but somethig was different about Luka. For one, whoever thought of writing a song about child abuse from the point of view of the child? (If you hear something late at night, some kind of trouble, some kind of fight, just don't ask me what it was) The words are haunting enough; the melody couldn't have accompanied them better. The brilliance of the songwriting becomes even sharper when compared with What's The Matter Here? by 10,000 Maniacs, about the same theme, released on the same year (1987). (I'm tired of the excuses everybody uses, he's your kid, do as you see fit.) Make no mistake – the song, written by vocalist Natalie Merchant, is equally brilliant, but Luka is more poetic and empathetic. In fact, a poet who happens to sing is what Suzanne Vega is. Her songs are always full of symbolism. It's not always obvious, but it speaks to you in ways only you can understand – just listen to Gypsy. Luka is one of the easy ones; Soap And Water is another – a song about a couple's separation and how it ravages the emotions of the child. But see how beautiful she illustrates tragedy: Soap and water, wash the year from my life, straighten all that we trampled and tore, heal the cut we call husband and wife. It's hard to think of another female singer-songwriter who approximates her intelligence. Best line: The verse I just quoted. Best part: The six guitar notes that run throughout the song.
circle dream : 10,000 maniacs
Resolute is one of the words I use to describe Natalie Merchant's voice. It's an amazing instrument she has. You hear her sing, and you know she's out to make a statement – from depression (Like The Weather, which you can listen to right here) to media desensitization (Candy Everybody Wants) to unwanted pregnancy (Eat For Two). Or at least that's what I think the last song is about. Motherhood is a theme that Merchant writes about with emotional acuity, free of clichés and mawkish testimonies. Circle Dream, from the band's 1992 album Our Time In Eden, is a celebration of life – and here you'll see some parallelism between her and Suzanne Vega's songwriting, because it's written from the voice of the unborn child. Best line: Her warmth coming near, calling me "Sweetness," calling me "Dear." Best part: Natalie's own backing and harmony vocals.