Excuses For Bad Behavior, Part I

Sandra Bernhard

550 Music/Epic, 1994


REVIEW BY: Peter Piatkowski


Sandra Bernhard’s stand-up comedy career has always been more of a cabaret act. She isn’t the kind of comic like Joan Rivers who tells jokes with punchlines, but instead, her shows comprise of stories interspersed with her rendition of pop songs. Bernhard is a student of pop culture and her musical tastes run the gamut and her art is very referential to her influences. Her 1994 album Excuses For Bad Behavior is her first studio LP that is an all-music album. Before that, her discography was devoted to soundtracks to her concerts)

So even though the album is a departure of sorts for Bernhard, it still fits firmly in her wheelhouse. The collection of songs alludes to topics that interest Bernhard: queerness, feminism, women in rock ‘n’ roll, popular culture and trends, and sex. Unlike her live albums, Excuses For Bad Behavior has the sheen polish of a recording studio, though she doesn’t use studio trickery to smooth over or clean up her vocals. She has an expressive, peculiar voice – an at-times reedy warble with a ready sneer.

As someone who uses her work to engage with queer culture, her heartfelt cover of Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” is a standout track. She has used the song in her show my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Without You I’m Nothing, and the disco song is remade into a midtempo ‘90s dance song. The original tune was a joyful anthem to sexuality, a tribute to the freedom gay men felt in the dance clubs. That Sylvester died of AIDS gives the song poignance and an urgency. Bernhard adds an intro that pays tribute to the late disco diva, crooning sweetly, “Sylvester, sister, you’re an angel walking among us/on the face of this earth/you were so beautiful, you were so fragile, you were so real.” Bernhard, a queer woman, lived through the AIDS crisis, so the song’s emotional depth is heard through the speakers.

Bernhard includes other customized covers, including a moody, spiritual take on the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil,” transforming the song into a meditative hymn. She takes Paul Simon’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” and strips it of the marching band percussion and folk-pop arrangement of the original (but maintains the blue-eyed funk of the chorus), and refashions it as a stylish sophistipop song. And for “Manic Superstar” Bernhard does a mashup of “Everything Is Alright” from Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Jesus Christ Superstar with Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” to create a guitar-strewn rock song.

The original songs – written by Bernhard along with her longtime musical arranger Mitch Kaplan – make up for a clever pastiche of ‘90s pop: grunge, rock, alternative rock, dance-pop. Though she wouldn’t be mistaken for her former girlfriend Madonna, Bernhard has an affection and an affinity for muscular, funky dance beats. Even if the songs sport crunchy guitars, we still get a throbbing beat or looping drum machines.

Though Bernhard has always laced her work with pathos, the original songs that work best are those in which she applies her arch wit. Though very dated in its references, “Prophesies” is a funny song in which the comedienne mocks celebrity psychic hotlines. “Who Knew?” is another funky tune that relies heavily on Bernhard’s worldly, tongue-in-cheek persona.

Excuses For Bad Behavior is an excellent record, a fantastic extension of Bernhard’s stage show. It’s unfairly obscure and deserves a higher profile. It’s a smart album that straddles the line between straight pop and comedy. Bernhard has a soulful voice with a lot of passion and is a sharp, astute songwriter.

Rating: A-

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