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As far as I’m concerned, having a gaga love for the Go-Go’s is one of the greater benefits of being 31 in 2001. Twenty years ago, when the California girls bubbled to the surface of the L.A. underground and charted with their IRS-issued debut, Beauty and the Beat, I was just old enough to realize that their silly punk attitude and serious pop chops were something worthy of playing loud. The Go-Go’s were new, the Go-Go’s were funand the Go-Go’s were mine. (Having neither a brother nor a sister to guide my musical tastes, I had been, up to that point, helpless against my parents’ Neil Diamond fanaticism.) This was also when I developed my first dueling celebrity crushes: Unable to decide between party-girl lead singer Belinda Carlisle and rock-pixie guitarist Jane Wiedlin, I simply blushed for both and watched the “Our Lips Are Sealed” video over and over until I knew every splash in that fountain.
And now, two decades later, I’m just young enough to be blissfully invigorated by the band’s first album of new material in 17 years, the utterly incandescent God Bless the Go-Go’s, due out May 15. The Go-Go’s are new again (well, kind of), they’re still having fun (sober fun, mind you)and they’re mine more than ever. (For some strange reason, I’m also kinda digging Hot August Night.) Pop music hasn’t made me feel so goofily goodand, for that matter, so proud of my pudgy prepubescent selffor a long, long time.
Instead of looking for inspiration in their last Top 10 hit, 1982’s sugar-spun “Vacation”or even in Belinda Carlisle’s late-’80s “Mad About You” solo papthe Go-Go’s have time-traveled back to the bittersweet ol’ days. The 13 songs here, most weighing in at a fat-free three minutes and change, use cascading guitar parts, heartbeat-altering drum lines, and sweetly seesawing harmonies to recapture the raw energy that fueled the band’s quicksilver rise in 1981. But the nods to yesteryear don’t stop there. The album’s cheeky title refers not to the Dentyne smiles of those angelic MTV water-skiers but to the rough-and-tumble rock-star trappings that seemingly killed the band three years later: endless bottles of booze, as many lines of coke, the resultant ego scufflesas well as legendary photographic degradation of their male groupies. The cover art is in on the joke as well, and features the five musiciansCarlisle, Wiedlin, bassist Kathy Valentine, guitarist Charlotte Caffey, and drummer Gina Schockshrouded, haloed, and smirkily solemn as the saints of chastity, purity, honesty, modesty, and mercy. The Go-Go’s seek forgivenessbut not really.
On only their fourth full-length studio effort, the Go-Go’s make a jangly pop party out of taking shots at former lovers, men in general, “X-ray girls,” SoCal poseurs, andon the sad, autobiographical finale, “Daisy Chain”themselves. The album opens with the 12-gauge blast of “La La Land,” the band’s boastful reintroduction to the modern-day masses (“C’mon, everybody/Do you want something real?”). Carlisle’s accumulated years have given her trilling turns some welcome seductive grit, and she’s singing as if that “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” wimp was a misguided impostor. Her renewed vocal strength also allows producers Paul Q. Kolderie and Sean Slade to move Schock’s steady, pounding drums and Wiedlin’s and Caffey’s swirling, surfy guitars up front, making “La La Land”‘s infectious chorus, with its rah-rah girl-group harmonizing, a steering-wheel-slapping shout-out.
Refusing to take a breather after the raucous “La La Land,” the Go-Go’s just get that much louder on the second cut (and first single), “Unforgiven,” co-written by Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrongbut sounding more like goods stolen from the brain of Dave Grohl. Hauling at a near-punk clip, the band sprints in stride as Carlisle, “always tryin’ to clean up [her] catastrophes,” digs into her past and puts a whipping on a previous paramour who got off too easy. After an air-guitar-gorgeous break, Carlisle shouts, “But when it comes to you/I know I said I do/But I don’t” and is then joined by her sisters in singing off this loser for good.
It’s hard to find a more satisfying moment than that on God Bless the Go-Go’s, but the sublimely cheeseball “Stuck in My Car” comes close. With a chorus that commands “Turn the radio up/And scream along,” a wicked guitar solo from Caffey, and a whole lotta chummy “Come on, come on”s thrown in for good measure, the song is one of the few on the album not seeking revengeand one of the few with any real production gloss. “Stuck in My Car” is brilliantly fun fluffabout a gridlocked gal desperate to see her boy toyand proves that the band can still churn out mindless but guilt-free musical confections.
Although there are a couple of ho-hums sprinkled into God Bless the Go-Go’sthe meandering “Vision of Nowness” and “Kissing Asphalt”the album finishes with a killer one-two-three punch. The vicious “Throw Me a Curve” features the zaftig Carlisle deliciously ripping into Vogue waifs (“I’d rather be a pin-up girl/Than zero size”), and the piano-laced “Talking Myself Down,” co-written by the Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs, is a girl-power update of the Go-Go’s overly optimistic 1984 hit “Head Over Heels.”
Finally, with Carlisle as somber tour guide, the hazy “Daisy Chain” takes the band from “Hollywood 1978” to its nasty 1984 breakup: “At No. 1, not doing so fine/Still having some fun, spilling the wine/The rising sun never felt too kind/We were out of our minds.” But “Daisy Chain” isn’t about finger-pointing; it’s a tear-free group hug with a killer hook. And just before all five Go-Go’s join for a lush, melancholic chorus, Carlisle hushes a direct “I’m sorry” to the woman with whom she formed the band all those years ago: “Never even said goodbye/Sweet Jane.”
Of course, Carlisle & Co. shouldn’t kick themselves too hard for their youthful indiscretions. After all, they’re not drug-addled, penis-picture-collecting punks anymore. Plus, at an age when most men and women are rocking kids to sleep instead of keeping them up all nightand at a time when most bands that briefly glimmered in the early ’80s are starving on dinky royalty checksthe Go-Go’s, God bless ’em, have never sounded better. CP