Sophie B. Hawkins
Reviewed on this page:
Tongues And Tails - Whaler - Timbre
Singer/songwriter Sophie B. Hawkins isn't easy to pin down. On her first album she sounded like a flukey one-hit
wonder; on her second, like a budding pop star; on her third, like a disillusioned cult hero post-folkie. Sometimes she makes
high-tech music sound completely natural, sometimes she makes acoustic instruments sound programmed and artificial. One
minute she's defending an endangered species, the next she's posing nude, the next she's fighting her record company to
keep a banjo in a final mix. She can write pop songs so gorgeous they melt in your mouth; she can write such awkward
lyrics and dreary tunes you wonder what anyone hears in her.
But with all these shifting parameters, there are a few constants: she uses lots of synth, strong 4/4 drums and major key
chord progressions, even in folk songs where none of those things seem appropriate. Like a lot of confessional songwriters,
it can be hard to tell whether she's being painfully honest, or if she's just obsessed with making her private life
public. Even her dullest work has deft arranging touches.
All right, I'm out of random observations. I might as well admit I have no idea what makes Hawkins tick, or who can expect
to love or hate her. Just buy Whaler and leave me alone, okay?
Hawkins' own web site is useful and relatively hype-free.
Tongues And Tails (1992)
Here's a strange combination for you: teen depressive yearning romantic poetry plus trance-inducing dance pop.
Hawkins got one big hit out of it, "Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover," but it gets dull after a while: her
talent for melody is disguised by the sluggish tempo and sustained chords, and she sounds like she's on downers much of the time ("We
Are One Body"). Curiously enough, the approach works best on the one tune Hawkins didn't write: Bob Dylan's "I Want You," which gets her most intense vocal on the album.
Though the disc doesn't show nearly the breadth or tunefulness of her second release, there's an enjoyable, somewhat varied
mix of guitar and synth sounds that keep things from getting too dull. Produced by Rick Chertoff and Ralph Schuckett. Schuckett also played keyboards
with Hawkins; other musicians include Rick DiFonzo, Gary Lucas and former Hooter Eric Bazilian on guitar, Mark Egan on
bass, Omar Hakim on drums, and Mino Cinelu on
Musically at least, a lot more focused and powerful than her debut. In fact, this time out Hawkins is Madonna without the hype: identical voice, same dance-styled synth-heavy pop
("Right Beside You") plus occasional ballads, same focus on
catchy tunes ("Don't Don't Tell Me No"). The lack of scheming and posing
is an improvement, there are no disconcerting experiments, and Hawkins
comes up with a first-rate anthemic love song, "Swing From Limb To
Limb." There are a few other differences between her and the Material
One: Hawkins plays her own keyboards, and has a significant Motown
influence ("True Romance" recalls "I'll Be There," "Sometimes I See" has
the easygoing lilt of "What's Going
On"). "Mr. Tugboat Hello" hearkens back even further, to 30s
nightclub jazz, before ending in Beatlesque cacophony. In fact, nothing
here is particularly original, but it's well-executed, pleasant, and
often charming. "As I Lay Me Down" was a single, though it isn't
particularly a standout track. Produced by Steve Lipson, who also plays
bass; other players include Neil Conti (drums), Peter Vettese (keys)
and Louis Jardim (percussion).
Reinventing herself again, Hawkins uses more traditional instruments and focuses on same-sex relationships and
environmental issues. Basically, she's trying to be a Cris Williamson for the new
millenium. But she can't get away from her synth-pop background - many of the arrangements are just synth washes over
drum loops, or analog recreations of same ("Strange Thing," "Nocturne") - or her penchant for pretentious, sophomoric
poetry ("Your Tongue Like The Sun In My Mouth," "The One You Have Not Seen"). The end result is sometimes laughable,
as in the would-be electronica hit "The Darkest Childe," in which Hawkins asks the musical question "How long can this
world keep fucking itself up the ass?" Uh, I dunno, you tell me. More importantly, she didn't write any strong melodies:
song after song drones on for five minutes or so, like the co-worker who doesn't realize that you don't care what they
had for breakfast yesterday morning. But it's not terrible: some of the lyrics are interesting and honest ("32 Lines"),
her voice drips with sensuality, and her phrasing often projects humor even in the face of absurd lyrics ("Help Me Breathe"). Self-produced and
largely self-performed; other musicians include Gerry Leonard (guitar), Paul Bushnell (bass), Steve Ferrone and Carlos
Vega (drums), and past Williamson associate Novi Novog (violin). (DBW)
Live: Bad Kitty Board Mix (2006)