Belinda Carlisle can't really be blamed for her dismal new album, "A Woman & A Man." Beneath layers of treacly production, her voice trills just as prettily as it did when she was the fabulous lead singer of the Go-Go's. There are hints of the Go-Go's hyper harmonies as well, if you can hear under the orchestral swells, crashing piano and horrid, screeching electric guitars.
The album's catchiest track, "Always Breaking My Heart," attempts the infectiousness of "Vacation" and "We Got the Beat," but none of Carlisle's musicians can give the track the sass that Jane Wiedlin peppered the Go-Go's with.
And while there's no shame in being unable to replicate something as perfect as the Go-Go's sound, neither song ranks with Carlisle's solo
gems like "Mad About You" or "Heaven is a Place on Earth" either. Every time it seems like she's going to finally deliver a crystalline melody, an awful guitarist barges in attempting to rock out, adult contemporary style. Songs like "Listen to Love" conjure scary images of beautiful Belinda surrounded by balding, ponytailed session musicians pumping their fists in the air.
Like with the recent Cyndi Lauper release, Carlisle's producers have laid on the production like makeup artists piling coverup on a 38-year-old
woman's laugh lines. With deadly earnest symphony arrangements and pointless backing vocals, they've turned perfectly good bits of pop into tunes tailor-made for lite rock stations or the music piped into Sears.
The sole purpose of "A Woman & A Man" seems to be to get heavy rotation on VH1 -- the press kit extols her "glamorous videos" and "Ann-Margret-esque sensuality," and calls her "one of the world's most photogenic women." She may be gorgeous now, but like Madonna, she made her best music when she was chubby and funky. Maybe the problem is that while it was all right for Belinda to sing about her real life in her 20s, she fears the tribulations of middle age don't translate into pop, so she sinks into a morass of Linda Ronstadt-style clichés. The dreadful "Remember September" is overflowing with doleful, melodramatic strings, but there's so little emotion in her voice, it's as if she's never even been stood up for a date, much less had her heart stomped on.
It's too bad, because when she mines her authentic experience, the results are so much more satisfying. The ominous "California," about a woman finally giving up on the Golden State, is a haunting song that contains the best lines on the album: "I was in the tanning salon/When I heard that River Phoenix was gone." Brian Wilson's backing vocals add to the song's hungover, millennial mood.
Similarly, "My Heart Goes Out To You," a spare acoustic ballad about a friend in mourning, is one of the album's best songs, both because her voice is unadorned and because the sentiment seems real. The lyrics about life's pathos would have sounded trite if they were surrounded by the symphonics of the rest of the record, but left alone, Carlisle's voice is lilting, lovely and sad. Maybe instead of setting their sights on VH1, her producers should think about getting her unplugged.