Thursday, October 19, 2017

Review of The Go-Go's' "God Bless The Go-Go's"

I posted this review on the Sputnik Music website earlier this afternoon:

Review Summary: This was more likely than not The Go-Go's' last-ever studio album. At least they went out on a high note.

I've written before about it before -- the notion that bands have a shelf life. It happens like this: Say you're fifteen years old, and you've just found your way to this site. Some new band just releases their first LP -- let's call them Nuclear Butt Nugget. It's some cutting-edge shit (no pun intended), and everyone just loves it. More than 3,000 people weigh in, to give the album an average Sputnik rating of 4.5. These guys are amazing! They're your new favorite band. You read everything you can about the album, and talk it about with all your friends. Thirteen months later, Nuclear Butt Nugget II is released, and it's even better than the first one. It gets almost 5,000 ratings this time. These guys are God! You catch them live on the Warped Tour, and it's the best day of your life. Three months later, your girlfriend breaks up with you, and all you can do is lay there in the dark and play Nuclear Butt Nugget II over and over again. It's the only thing that keeps you from killing yourself. You get through these dark days, but by the time the follow-up, Still Butt Nuggets, comes out, you're in the middle of mid-terms during freshman year of college. The band is still pretty great, but you're much busier now -- they're a smaller part of your life.

Flash forward twenty-five years. You hear through the grapevine that the Nugget is back! You download the new album, and they sound as good as they ever did. But things have changed. Nobody's talking about them. You try to play it for your kids, but they look at you with a mixture of pity and disgust. The album doesn't chart. Sputnik Music has long since collapsed -- one day after the site had its usual weekly crash, it just never came back. But if it was still up, the album would be lucky to pull twenty ratings. Nuclear Butt Nugget is a band out of time. They're an oldies act. They still write great songs, but no one seems to care but you. They still draw enough to tour. But when they do, there's no more mosh pit -- somebody would break a hip. And every year, the heads in the audience get whiter and whiter.

You get what I'm saying. God Bless The Go-Go's is vintage Go-Go's. It's every bit as good as the three studio albums they released in their prime. In fact, it's probably better than Vacation. Its one great sin is that it was released exactly twenty years after the band's debut album Beauty and the Beat. And that's enough to condemn it to relative obscurity. Which is a shame, because for Go-Go's fans, it's a welcome addition to the band's somewhat slim discography. Or it would have been, if we'd even been aware of it. But for many of us, when it came out in 2001, we were just too busy living our lives to even know it existed. So here I am, sixteen years later, giving it some belated love. 

The Go-Go's were pop punk before anyone even used the term. They began as a bunch of girls who mostly didn't know how to play their instruments but thought it would be cool to play in a band and get famous. As they got more proficient, their music became known for its driving guitars, for the throaty vocals of lead singer Belinda Carlisle, and for strong harmonies by Jane Wiedlin, Charlotte Caffey and Kathy Valentine. It also helped that several of the band members, particularly Wiedlin, Caffrey and Valentine, had a knack for writing catchy songs with strong, recognizable hooks.

All of those strengths are eminently on display on God Bless The Go-Go's. The strongest song, "Unforgiven," was co-written with Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong. Its core idea is an interesting one, namely if you can forgive someone, you can just as easily "unforgive" them, especially when their subsequent behavior proves that they never deserved forgiveness in the first place. This track was released as a single, and managed to reach #44 on Billboard's "Mainstream Rock" chart (otherwise known as rock for old people).

The album contains thirteen tracks in all, and most of them are at least decent. "La La Land," the song that opens the album, is the band's in-your-face way of re-introducing themselves to their audience: "Hello world we're here again/Living life in lalaland," "lalaland" in this case meaning both a state of unreality, and also, or course, the band's home base of Los Angeles. The theme of forgiveness surfaces again in another of the LP's best tracks, "Apology", although here it's sung from the perspective of the offender, not the forgiver: "My moods they change like the weather/So I ask your forgiveness/While I pull myself together."

Other strong tracks include "Automatic Rainy Day," about that one friend who can always manage to suck all the life out of a room; "Daisy Chain," a slower, more regretful number that Wiedlin and Valentine co-wrote with Jill Sobule; "Kissing Ashphalt", a song about doing both a physical and emotional faceplant; and "Here You Are," a somewhat melancholic musical representation of the old truism "Wherever you go, there you are" (which has been credited by some to Confucius, but I like to attribute to a more modern philosopher, Crocodile Dundee).

One other worthwhile asterisk about this album is the controversy that surrounded the cover art. The front cover for this one featured five individual photos of each of the band members dressed as The Virgin Mary. This led to criticism from a number of different Catholic watchdog groups. It would have probably been controversial anyway, but given The Go-Go's' previous notoriety for drug use and one famous "sex tape" (although the closest thing to "sex" on the tape was purportedly a drug-addled game of hide the phallic object between the butt cheeks of a passed-out male roadie), it's somewhat understandable that true believers might consider this band to be particularly ill-suited for such a pious depiction. 

In any event, although God Bless the Go-Go's did manage to hit # 57 on the American Billboardcharts, it came and went largely unnoticed. In the years since that time, the band has toured on and off, but in all probability, this will serve as their last studio album (especially since they kicked Valentine out of the band in 2013). If that's so, at least they went out on a high note. Sputnikkers should consider giving it some love. Especially since they're ten times better than Nuclear Butt Nugget could ever hope to be.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars