Listening to rock radio in the early ’90s — particularly the college and ‘alternative’ varieties — was an experience like no other. The ratio of tolerable to intolerable music was so high that no aspiring hipster ever needed to flip through top 40 stations again. The cream of those groups (Soundgarden, the Afghan Whigs, Dinosaur Jr., and of course Nirvana and Pearl Jam) were getting their due on MTV, too. There may not have been the kinds of explosive social and political issues, at that time, to galvanize a generation the way ’60s did, and that the last eight years have had, but much of that early ’90s music made a similarly strong connection and reflection of the awkward psyches that were and are common in high schoolers and college students.
Seeing it that way, anyone who still grooves to the grunge and college rock of yesteryear either has some serious unresolved personal issues, or simply hasn’t learned how to grow up yet. As it turns out, one of that era’s icons, Juliana Hatfield, is about to publish her first book, a memoir titled When I Grow Up. Do with that what you will.
Most of us first became familiar with Juliana in the summer of 1993, when what was to become her signature song, “My Sister,” took hold of modern rock radio and MTV, disarming us with its blunt opening line: “I hate my sister, she’s such a bitch.” Either you were enthralled with empathy, you were turned off by the girlishness of Juliana’s voice, or you were like my mother and just laughed. But no matter what the response, you likely did respond in some way to that introduction.
In reality, Juliana does not have a sister (though she does have a brother, Jason, who has collaborated with her once in a while in the studio), and by ’93, she already had six years of record-making and live performance behind her. While attending the Berklee College of Music, Massachusetts native Juliana Hatfield was approached by drummer Freda Boner (later the less eyebrow-raising Love) and singer/guitarist John Strohm in 1986.
By the next year, they had released their first album, Nicely, Nicely, with Juliana on bass and lead vocals, as the Blake Babies. Their earliest recordings sported a punk-like intensity that mirrored the light-on-distortion approach of the Minutemen, albeit with more straight-ahead pop songwriting. Plus, with Juliana’s thin alto carrying most of the lead vocals, her lack of rasp gave even their cover of the Stooges’ “Loose” (download) (from their second full-length album, 1989’s Earwig) a jangly quality.
By 1990, their sound had developed into cute and catchy jangle pop on their masterpiece, Sunburn. Juliana’s demons really came to the fore — “Watch Me Now, I’m Calling” dealt with self-mutilation, “A Million Years” (download) married an anthemic songwriting approach to desperation fed by self-loathing, and on “I’ll Take Anything” (download), there was the no-win combination of slackerdom and desperation matched with what was fast becoming an elegant songwriting voice.
After one more EP in ’91, the Blakes were no more. A hit with the college crowd, the Blakes’ relative success would, in short order, be overshadowed by Juliana’s own.
Juliana had already shown her dark side with the Blake Babies, albeit with a pleasing balance of spunk and cuteness. On her first solo record, for the North Carolina-based indie Mammoth Records, the spunk in her voice was toned down a bit — being on her own suited her well, but she sounded just a tad less confident at first than she did with her old band. No matter — her songwriting chops were already in enviable shape, and she had guests like former Minutemen bassist Mike Watt to help fill in the gaps and beef up her new sound, which was generally fuller and more shimmering than the Blake Babies, though still very much cut from the same cloth.
Part of the connection to the Blakes’ sound can also be pegged on principal Lemonhead (and occasional Blake Babies collaborator) Evan Dando, who sang backgrounds on “Lost and Saved” (download) and the single “Everybody Loves Me But You,” and played some guitar on “The Lights.” Juliana returned the favor by playing bass on the Leomonheads’ It’s a Shame About Ray (released a few months after Hey Babe), but no, they were never an item, as the press at the time had us believe.
Though Hey Babe definitely rocks and feels like a band recording, it’s at least as lonely an album as the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. The predominant theme is love — mostly unrequited (typified by “Everybody Loves Me But You” and “I See You”) or otherwise dysfunctional — the most telling line, from “Forever Baby,” being “I see my long lost home in his eyes / He sees a nice hotel in mine.”
It’s also a somewhat schizophrenic album — the two heaviest rockers are life-affirming in completely opposite ways. The voice of “Nirvana” (download) — reworked into a full-on rocker from its previous incarnation as a solo acoustic recording on the Blake Babies’ Rosy Jack World EP — is on the verge of suicide, until it declares to us, “I’ve got Nirvana in my head / I’m so glad I’m not dead.” And yes, it’s that Nirvana. The particular song that inspired Hey Babe‘s centerpiece was, according to Juliana herself, “Negative Creep.”
Then there’s “Get Off Your Knees,” where the sheer will to survive is reflected not just in the lyrics (“There’s a lump in my throat that won’t go away / I’m gonna rip it ooouuuttt!!!”), but in the speedy, punked-up tempo and Mike Watt’s beautifully insane bass line. All the rock just shields the pathos, ultimately — it’s Juliana’s solo performance of “Ugly” that says everything one needs to know about the psychology of the whole record. With just her voice and a guitar, she coos “I’m ugly with a capital U / and I don’t need a mirror to see that it’s true.”
It’s not the easiest bunch of words to digest just for pleasure. It is very real, the kind of real that troubled young girls could identify with, and that young sensitive guys could use to feed their fantasies of rescuing a cute waif from her demons. She’d soon be turning her gaze outward a bit more, and after revealing to Interview Magazine that she was a virgin to minor controversy, it was pretty much a given that some filtration would be happening in her work.
“Everybody Loves Me But You” video, 1992
The transformation is dramatic on Juliana’s second album, credited to the Juliana Hatfield Three. Lame band name aside (it just doesn’t have the same ring as the Bobby Fuller Four or the Dave Clark Five), the consistency of approach to the music worked wonders. Todd Philips, drummer on Hey Babe, is part of the band, as is Dean Fisher on bass. And that’s it. No guests. Plus, now that she had the backing of Atlantic Records, she could afford to have Scott Litt as her producer to beef up the sound, while still retaining her jangle pop roots. After all, he had been working with R.E.M., so the fit couldn’t have been better.
Arriving in the summer of ’93, a large enough portion of the mopey grunge/alternative generation that was eating up Beavis and Butthead and The Real World responded positively to that opening line of “My Sister” that she was soon moving beyond cult status. What put her over the top, however, was the inclusion of the album’s second single, “Spin the Bottle,” in the Reality Bites soundtrack.
And yes, the gaze was truly turned outward this time — “My Sister,” though sung in the first person, is not autobiographical; “Mabel,” as revealed in her April 14, 2008 blog post, was inspired by the manic-depressive lead character in John Cassavetes’ film A Woman Under the Influence; “A Dame With a Rod” (download) is a fantasy about giving a rapist just what he deserves; and “For the Birds” is probably the best pop song anyone will ever write about a dead bird. And while her repetition of the phrase “I’m saying something really deep” in “President Garfield” (download) (which was inspired by Henry Rollins — he really does have a “neck like a tire”) may have been meant to insist without ambiguity that she was not referring to Rollins’ penis when she sang “I want his power inside of me,” it risks annoyance in an otherwise solid rocker that throws the whole verse-chorus-verse pattern clear out the window. Even at that, Become What You Are is something of a classic of early ’90s alternative rock, and is still Juliana’s most easily digestible platter of pop confection.
“Spin the Bottle” video, 1994
The title Only Everything is a nod to Dinosaur Jr. (lifted from the lyrics to “Raisans,” which Juliana covered for one of the “Forever Baby” single’s b-sides). The casually extreme title is fitting — Only Everything is Juliana’s longest album (14 songs total), it features the heaviest drummer she’s ever worked with (Josh Freese, whose credits include A Perfect Circle, Nine Inch Nails, and Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy sessions), and Juliana plays all guitars on the album herself.
Though the album is about one song too long (“Dumb Fun” is all too apt a title), it was a powerful follow-up to Become What You Are. The guitars are loud and confident, and even though Juliana was still her dependably contemplative self on songs like “What a Life” and “Outsider,” she sounded like she was truly enjoying her success. “Universal Heartbeat” took that contemplative side and turned it into a philosophy (“a heart that hurts is a heart that works”) that sounded less like consolation, and more like just some rock n’ roll fun. It should have been a much bigger hit, but then, she didn’t have the promotional push of a hit movie soundtrack this time around. Shame, as her re-recording of the “Spin the Bottle” B-side “My Darling” (download) has an old-fashioned charm that probably could have made some headway with more exposure.
As it was, her silly side came through in “Fleur de Lys,” and the old heartbroken Juliana came back beautifully on “Bottles and Flowers” (download). Best of all, however, was the album’s supporting tour. Those who were lucky enough to make it to one of her ’95 performances were treated to an opening performance by her co-headliner, Jeff Buckley.
“Universal Heartbeat” video, 1995
God’s Foot (unreleased, 1997)
It was with God’s Foot that Juliana Hatfield entered the unreleased album club (as documented in Dan Leroy’s excellent book “The Greatest Music Never Sold”). Granted, she would have preferred that it was released, but Atlantic frustratingly decided to keep it locked up when they dropped her from their roster.
It was frustrating to the fans as well, who had been hearing songs like “What Have I Done to You” (download) in her live sets throughout 1996, in anticipation of the album’s release. She still held out for the possibility of a future release a year after the album was cancelled, keeping some of the God’s Foot songs in her live sets in 1997, even as she prepared an EP for release on the indie label Bar None. Eventually, “Mountains of Love” and “Fade Away” would see proper release on Juliana’s first anthology, but still, to this day some of her most hauntingly beautiful paeans to loneliness (“How Would You Know” (download), “Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Melody”) are circulating as crummy-sounding mp3’s of questionable origin. Musically speaking, it was enough of a tragedy. But what it meant for Juliana personally was more painful than any fan could have realized.
Juliana performing solo at the free Waterplace Park concert series in Providence, RI, Summer 1996 (photo by MF)
This six-song EP was intended as a stopgap, a little taste of some new music as Juliana continued to tour in ’97 with God’s Foot songs in her setlist and some hope that another label would buy back the masters from Atlantic. Unfortunately, no one was interested at this point in spending the money Atlantic was demanding, and instead, Please Do Not Disturb marked the beginning of Juliana’s second life as an independent artist.
She let her guitar scream through feelings of envy (“Give Me Some of That”) and desperation (“As If Your Life Depended On It” [download]), but was most poignant on her acoustic guitar as she mourned her friend and one-time touring partner Jeff Buckley (“Trying Not to Think About It”). The EP’s other acoustic tune, “Edge of Nowhere” (download), is a mood piece, and one that violates the directive in the disc’s title. “Daydreaming of unconsciousness” and contemplating “Valium sleep mixed with wine” would set off alarms with most anyone concerned, and yet, her double-tracked vocal has the effect of making her sound detached as she sings, in stark contrast to the naked pain she expressed with unadorned voice in “Ugly” or her b-side “Feed Me.” It was as if the forcefulness on display in the disc’s electric songs had drained her, or rather, the battle to keep God’s Foot alive was draining her.
Just as with Brian Wilson after the collapse of the Beach Boys’ Smile sessions, post-God’s Foot, depression overcame Juliana and she retreated to her bed. Hence the title of her first album for Rounder Records’ ZoÃƒÂ« imprint. At first, she sounds reinvigorated and back to fighting form — “Down on Me” opens with squealing guitar feedback, and proceeds (like the rest of the self-produced album) in a raw, no-nonsense manner.
But the quirks that mark this album as a low-budget, bang-’em-out-and-move-on affair are evident right from the beginning. Even before “Down on Me” hits its first chorus, Juliana’s doubled vocal falls out of synch for a jumbled few words. And, between nods to early ’80s pop (stealing the opening line from “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” in “Sneaking Around;” writing “Swan Song” (download) as a sequel of sorts to John Cougar’s “Jack and Diane” — “Dear Jack, I hate you / Love Dianne” — and dig the nod to “Brown Sugar”) and ruminations on the mind of a mugger (“Bad Day”) and the sweet release of spending all one’s assets to the very end, both for fun and for charity (“Let’s Blow It All” [download]), Juliana also started a pattern in her albums of sprinkling a quorum of appealing melodies with some less-fulfilling vehicles for her stories and confessions.
First Guns N’ Roses, then Bruce Springsteen. Almost a decade after those two megastar artists sprang two albums on the public on a single release date, Juliana did the same. OK, so not much more than her diehard fan base was noticing such a move by now, but it was still a milestone of sorts. It was also another example of a double album release where one record was far superior to the other. Beautiful Creature outshone its sister album, Total System Failure, by a long shot. Pity that more folks didn’t hear it. This was mostly her softer side, with very few rockers and mostly acoustic or otherwise sparsely arranged songs; very pretty songs, but sad songs (which by now had easily become Juliana’s trademark and specialty), and executed with grace.
Though the mood is fairly consistent throughout, the production chores were actually split between Philly-based Andy Kravitz (on “Cry in the Dark”), Wally Gagel (he added the album’s few electronica tinges on “Cool Rock Boy” and “Don’t Rush Me”), Juliana with David Garza (on the sweet lullaby “Close Your Eyes”), a few Automatic For the People-worthy selections manned by Scott Litt (“Until Tomorrow” [download] is especially reminiscent of R.E.M.), and Juliana alone, on the awkward “Daniel” and the startlingly poignant “Choose Drugs” (download), which quietly and undramatically escapes a happy ending. No other album of Juliana’s had so many different producers, which should have made for an uneven record. That it came out as consistently excellent as it did — indeed, it is one of Juliana’s proudest achievements and best albums — is a testament to her singular vision.
“Don’t Rush Me” video, 2000
The second of her pair of records from 2000 shows off Juliana’s loud, punky, abrasive side, and doesn’t deviate for a second. Not only does Total System Failure differentiate itself from Beautiful Creature through volume, it also has only one producer (Juliana herself), and is credited to “Juliana’s Pony” (a trio rounded out by drummer Zephan Courtney and her bassist from Bed, the then-current Weezer bassist Mikey Welsh).
It certainly is fun — yay for songs flipping a metaphorical bird at unfit parents, marriage and shitty drivers — but suffers from too much of a good thing. Too many amped up guitars juxtaposed against double tracked vocals, too many of the same dynamics, two songs that are the same exact track with almost identical melodies but different lyrics, songs that sound half-finished…the best tunes were the ones that bucked the pattern: “My ProtÃƒÂ©gÃƒÂ©,” “Noblesse Oblige,” the slow and rudely blunt “Using You” (download), and the solo electric “Ten Foot Pole” (download), where she carries the whole performance herself, rhythm section be damned. It may not have been a joke record, as Juliana defended in the next entry’s liner notes (she can say whatever she wants, but “Leather Pants,” “Road Wrath” and “”Let’s Get Married” are funny, whether intentional or not), but it was far from her best work and suffered even more in comparison to such a magnificent record as Beautiful Creature.
Side note: in 2001, all those who missed out on seeing Juliana play with the Blake Babies were treated to a one-off reunion tour and album. However, it was abundantly clear that the group was not intent on replicating the original experience. Rather than playing bass, as she did originally with the Blakes, Juliana stuck to guitar and Daniel Johnston (no, not that Daniel Johnston) was hired for bass duties. The concerts were a joy, featuring all the old tunes that Juliana had consciously shut out of her solo career, as well as covers of Fleetwood Mac’s “Walk a Thin Line” (download) (done faithfully) and “I Wanna Be Sedated” (played as if the wish for sedation had already been granted). Both of these ended up on a limited edition EP entitled Epilogue — the title made it clear that another reunion shouldn’t be expected.
The full-length album that resulted from the reunion, God Bless The Blake Babies, was even stronger evidence that, as the people in the band changed, so did the music. Juliana’s songs were more measured and less spunky; Freda Love Smith’s songwriting had developed to the point where she couldn’t be denied a few contributions, and as Evan Dando’s ‘regular guest’ status resumed, his presence was also felt much more strongly than before. The record came off sounding like the Blakes’ own White Album, albeit at half the length. Sometimes, a reunion is a good thing, if only to prove that “it’s not the same anymore.” This was one of those — it was awesome, and very welcome at the time, but if it never happens again, it wouldn’t be considered a great tragedy.
Gold Stars is a great example of why artists shouldn’t always have a lot of say in a compilation’s track selection. While “Sneaking Around” and “Cry in the Dark” might have had personal significance for Juliana, “Nirvana” should have been there somewhere, if only to recognize its resonance. Small matter, though — the four new songs included were all winners, as were her heartfelt cover of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” (download) and her fun remake of “Every Breath You Take.” Apart from the EP’s worth of new songs tacked onto the end, and the official release of the God’s Foot tracks “Fade Away” and “Mountains of Love,” the best part of the collection was Juliana’s song-by-song liner notes. This marked the beginning of Juliana reaching out more to her fans via the printed word. Little did we know just how much more she had to say.
Side note: the most lasting effect of the Blake Babies’ reunion was the new partnership that emerged from Juliana’s re-connection with Freda Love Smith. The two recruited Heidi Gluck on bass, and together, a new trio was formed for 2003, with a very rock n’ roll band name: Some Girls. As Juliana has shown a great appreciation for Neil Young over the years, stretching back to the early days of the Blake Babies, it wouldn’t be a stretch to consider Some Girls as Juliana’s equivalent of Crazy Horse. She could play with better musicians if she wanted (and regularly did/does when she’s out solo), but there’s camaraderie there, and no one can deny that Freda has her own distinct drum style. Plus, who doesn’t like to watch an all-girl band have fun rocking out? Their sound is sparse and modest, guitars aren’t too crazy, and the songs on their Koch Records debut Feel It are simple and catchy (dig “Robot City” [download], for example). Just like Crazy Horse, Juliana only takes them out when the time is right, and who knows when they’ll be back again?
Juliana’s time with the ZoÃƒÂ« imprint, despite having major label distribution (through Universal), hadn’t turned her commercial fortunes back around. Her last album for the label, In Exile Deo came off like an attempt to create a more commercially palatable recording, though not blatantly so. By all rights it should have gotten more attention. However, even though this mostly self-produced effort sports a slicker sound than anything else she had released since Only Everything, and though Juliana was also singing at her most confident since that same record, the fact remained that her songs were still far from the feel-good anthems of a Melissa Etheridge or a Sheryl Crow, and nowhere near as fascinatingly strange and eccentric as a Polly Jean Harvey or a pre-Matrix Liz Phair.
No matter how she dressed up her songs, she remained true to herself — a depressed yet hopeful sort of plane Jane whose small but pretty voice sits in stark contrast to the aggressive, distorted guitar lines she routinely tosses out in traditional rock n’ roll fashion. In other words, in 2004, she could really only play to the small but loyal fan base that continued to keep her afloat. And everyone else lost out on brutally direct rockers like “Get in Line” and “Because We Love You” (download), the surprisingly positive “Sunshine” (download), and the fun “Dirty Dog,” which features a cameo from Juliana’s Labrador retriever. This was some of her most streamlined classic rock material, and was the true (s)equal to Beautiful Creature, ranking among her best. But with In Exile Deo marking the end of her relationship with ZoÃƒÂ«, from here, she takes a different tack.
Radiohead gets all the credit now, but almost three years before they were offering In Rainbows as a “pay what you want” download, Juliana was experimenting with what she referred to as “the honor system” in 2005. Rather than selling a finished album in this manner, however, she was offering up songs from her archives — previously unreleased demos, outtakes, alternate versions and other rarities — aimed squarely at that core audience that continued to stick with her in spite of changing tastes and a changing world. Next to each download link was a PayPal link. Juliana’s suggestion was $1 per song, but she made it clear that you could give more if you wanted, or nothing.
Though she never did release the exact figures of what she made from this experiment, which she has repeated on two more occasions, she did claim that the money she made from the downloads financed the making of Made in China, which became Juliana’s first album release on her own Ye Olde Records label. ‘Release’ is definitely an appropriate word for the record — in contrast to the art-and-commerce balancing act performed on her ZoÃƒÂ« efforts, on Made in China she pretty much went for broke. She let brash songs like “New Waif,” “Going Blonde” and “Digital Penetration” fly out and onto tape with little regard for the structured pop songcraft that marked her prior releases, and sang them with an angry punk-infused passion that was as refreshing as it was unfiltered. And yet, with “My Pet Lion” (download), she doesn’t completely abandon punchy pop-punk. Her quiet side is here too — the acoustic 9/11-inspired tune, “Hole in the Sky” (download), actually sounds like it could have been recorded in an apartment on a cheap four-track.
While this approach was in some ways similar to the loud assault of Total System Failure, the variety of moods, arrangements, players, and the decidedly DIY aesthetic (all the photos, drawings and scribbles in the CD booklet are Juliana’s own) set it apart from all the rest of her recordings. Yes, it’s low-budget, (four of the songs feature no other musicians than Juliana herself) and she probably should have practiced more before laying down her first (and only, to date) released drum track on “Oh,” but its honesty is as striking and refreshing as (dare I say) Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. It’s Juliana in the raw — figuratively in the music, and literally on the front cover.
It’s not a document of Juliana at the peak of her popularity and cultural relevance. It’s not a complete concert. It’s not even an especially dolled-up package. It is, however, the one and only official live album in Juliana Hatfield’s discography. It captures Juliana playing in a live trio setting for most of the program, with bassist Ed Valauskas and drummer Pete Caldes, in support of the Made in China album while opening for X, playing material drawn mostly from her post-Atlantic career (the lone exception being the obligatory “My Sister” [download]).
Especially revealing is how often Juliana was singing just behind the beat, from the first track “Hotels” on down the line, though she does this less often on the two songs drawn from a 2002 solo performance at the Orpheum in Boston, “Choose Drugs” and “Ten Foot Pole.” Her guitar is always locked in tight with her rhythm section, however, so the effect is almost like that of a jazz singer fronting a punk band (as in, it sounds slightly sloppier than it should), even though she rarely takes liberties with her melodies. OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the point is clear — she’s not concerned with replicating her studio recordings. She does take some liberties, not just with the melody but with the vocal rhythm, however, in “Down on Me” (download) — while her guitar stays firmly locked in with her bassist and drummer.
“Oh” (download) is the most welcome recast — whereas the end results on Made in China were very demo-ish and tentative due to Juliana playing all the instruments, including drums, here it finally has the power the rest of the album has, with Caldes drumming away with a pro’s confidence. It’s not necessarily an essential entry in Juliana’s catalog (and she’s had better tour performances on top of that), but as a window into her live presentation, it captures a particular moment with all the raw-ness that she continually embraces, even when she’s dolling up her sound in the studio.
Side note: Juliana trotted out Some Girls for another go-round in 2006 with the album Crushing Love. She sings most of it, but cedes more of the songwriting duties to Freda and Heidi this time. Jake Smith helps out with some songs too, contributing the two best moments of the album (“Is This What I’ve Been Waiting For” and the title track). And of the songs of Juliana’s that are included…let’s just say she kept the best stuff for her own records.
Juliana snuck this cutely titled EP out in the spring of ’07Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ not that any of her post-Atlantic discs could be considered major release events, but Sittin’ in a Tree, simply by virtue of being an EP, probably escaped even those who follow Juliana closely. It doesn’t even register in Metacritic, which is a shame, because there’s a whole bunch of Jayhawks and Son Volt fans that probably would have dug it, had they known about it.
On these six songs, Juliana teamed up with a Boston (now Austin) band that long ago joined that elite club of bands named as if the collective is one person (i.e. Edward Bear, Danny Wilson), handing over production and arranging duties to the alt-country collective. What came out was some of the most refreshing music Juliana had released since her major label days. Much of what she released since then, with some exceptions, tended to be serious. Here, she really truly sounds like she’s having fun making music with a new bunch of people. It even comes out in the serious songs, like the gentle “On Your Mind” and the confident kiss-off waltz “364” (download), the latter co-written with her brother Jason.
Best of all, though, is “If Only We Were Dogs” (download). It has every right to be a song filled with innuendo — what else could “I want to run right up and jump all over you” mean, really? And yet, what can you possibly take away from lyrics like “licking crumbs off plates together?” That dark banjo intro doesn’t give any indication of what’s to come, which itself is a stroke of genius. Only “My Kitten” comes off like a throwaway (absolutely no way this song is about anything else but losing a little kitty cat), and even at that, it’s still a gas hearing the band play.
In contrast to Sittin’ in a Tree, which was a fun and highly enjoyable little tease of an EP released with little fanfare, Juliana embraced Web 2.0 to set up anticipation for How to Walk Away over the course of almost half a year. Between streaming songs from the forthcoming album on her MySpace page, engaging her audience with very long and detailed weekly posts about fan-chosen songs from her catalog on her blog An Arm and a Leg, and the announcement that she will be releasing her first book in September, the build-up and promotion for the album was pretty impressive for a tiny independent label. And, while How to Walk Away does indeed boast some very well-crafted songs (including “My Baby,” which ranks among Juliana’s best, most infectious pop tunes), it doesn’t play like the major statement or exciting musical shift that would merit such a push.
Then again, Radiohead’s In Rainbows received the same criticism in some quarters, but the case here is that the music on the Sittin’ in a Tree EP, just ahead of How to Walk Away, seems more like the kind of music that would pick up traction from such a strong push. The overwhelming positive of that EP — its carefree, fun vibe combined with solid arrangements — finds its foil here. Juliana sounds down and out amid the airy, precise pop production of Ivy’s Andy Chase. Indeed, as she is singing against such sad, minor chords in “The Fact Remains” and declaring that “next time maybe I will know how to walk away with pride and grace,” the feeling is very isolated and contemplative. Not that this is much different from some of what she put forth on Hey Babe, except that here she sounds resigned and exasperated, or maybe just older…experienced.
This laid-back approach is par for the course with Ivy records, but too much of that on a Juliana Hatfield album is actually somewhat scarier than hearing her sing of contemplating a double suicide (as she does in Bed‘s “Running Out”). Some of her fire comes back in “So Alone” (download) — more minor chords, and sung in the second person (“you’re so alone / you wanna die, and nobody knows”). And then, on the album’s closer and other best song, “Law of Nature” (download), her vocal finally meshes in perfect unity with Andy Chase’s production, striking a beautiful balance between passion and resignation and leaving us with the fatalistic truth that “reason has no chance in this selfish world.” For a record that doesn’t carry a lot of oomph overall, it ends like a classic.
“I’ve been contemplating the idea of ‘giving up.’ I’m looking at it as an option, in various areas of my lifeÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ You’ve heard the expression to ‘drop the ball’? Record companies are often accused of ‘dropping the ball’ on a band, or an album, by refusing to promote it, or to continue to put money into it. What if I, as my own (Ye Olde) record company, decide to drop the ball on myself? Just something to think about.”
— “My Pet Lion” blog post, 7/14/08, An Arm and a Leg
It’s hard to imagine Juliana Hatfield’s artistic ebb and flow coming to an end so soon (okay, so she’s been musically active for more than two decades, but who’s counting?), though it wouldn’t be the first time someone walked away from a music career whose artistic richness hasn’t been generating likewise returns. If she were to call it a career at this point in time, she would at least be leaving behind a fascinating, enjoyably lasting, body of work that’s impressive by any standard. But what would she do? She’s only 40, which seriously is not as old an age as it was back when she was 20. There’s time yet to figure out that old “what will I do when I grow up?” question, and people who will pay to find out.