The Boston Phoenix
July 13 - 20, 2000

[Music Reviews]

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Family values

Jason Hatfield's Star Hustler clan

Cellars by Starlight by Jonathan Perry

We barely get inside the door of Geoffrey's Café on Tremont Street when Jason Hatfield spies a magazine with his older sister on the cover. He bends down to pick it up. "Great shot of Juliana -- very rock," he enthuses, taking in the full-color photo of her rouged with black eyeliner and kneeling in black leather and denim while holding a battered, custard-colored guitar like an offering to an ancient ritual. "Nice SG, too." I had actually spotted that cover several minutes before in a vendor box but had opted not to say anything because I thought Jason, a gifted songwriter in his own right, might be sensitive to my mentioning his more famous sibling -- especially since we'd just met to talk about his band Star Hustler and Songs for Betty (Dirt), the outfit's forthcoming fourth album (due out in September).

"Not really," Hatfield says over lunch later, when I ask him whether it's tough living in Juliana's alterna-rock shadow even as his own artistic promise becomes a reality. "She's taught me a lot of stuff by example, and I still have a lot to learn. But something that she's taught me is, this is not magic -- it's work. Depending on what your motivations are and what you want to do with music, she's shown me that if you work really, really hard at something you love, then there's value in just doing that, regardless of all the bullshit that might go along with that. She's just continued to grow as a songwriter and a lyricist . . . regardless of what some shithead with a cell phone is trying to negotiate on paper for Seagram's benefit, or whatever."

Jason Hatfield, it seems, has taken his big sister's lessons to heart. Despite the revolving-door line-up that's made Star Hustler a shape-shifting band over the last few years, one thing's remained constant: Hatfield's prowess as a songwriter, not to mention his impeccable taste in covers -- 1998's Transamber included covers of Bob Dylan's "Seven Curses" and Flatt & Scruggs's "Dim Lights," and Songs for Betty cherry-picks Townes Van Zandt's "White Freightliner" and Dwight Yoakam's "It Won't Hurt." The pleasant surprise is how well the 30-year-old's compositions hold their own amid this lofty company. "One thing I did on this record that I'm psyched about, because I haven't done it before, is really working on the lyrics or the vocals," says Hatfield, whose band play the Lizard Lounge next Saturday (July 22). "And I don't mean to say that I'm really happy with the lyrics -- because I'm not, with some of them. There's always stuff you feel you could say more precisely."

Even though the themes of Songs for Betty have mostly to do with a misty ache of longing and a sense of unbridgable distance ("Even Still" and "Gone Missing"), the wistful sentiments are favored with a brighter country-rock sparkle than the rustic Americana that gave Transamber its overcast charm. Part of this shift has to do with having a few different players this time around (absent is Hatfield's old vocal-duet partner Blake Hazard, who's pursuing her own solo projects -- see below). And part of it has to do with Hatfield's own desire to distance himself from the more overt sense of melancholy that marked his past work.

"I'm starting to take myself less seriously and want to be able to write a pop song and appreciate the fact that `this is a pop song' and it's fun to sing, it's fun to play, and people want to hear it. I'm trying to get away from that `woe is me, I'm so tortured' stuff, because I'm not. I'm really lucky and I have nothing to complain about." He declines to talk about some of the personal emotional turbulence that he's spoken of in the past. "I'm doing fine. Everybody's got problems they have to deal with. I'd rather just have people listen to the record and come see us live and not worry about that shit." As if to reflect this lighter sensibility, Hatfield named Songs for Betty after something near and dear to his heart. "Betty's, uh, my favorite animal in the world -- she's a family dog," he confesses with an embarrassed laugh. "She always wants to play, she's always really happy to see me, and I'm always really happy to see her. It's kind of a joke."

There's nothing funny or frivolous about the talented crop of players Hatfield recruited for the album, however. This time around, he got a little vocal help from friends like Fuzzy's Chris Toppin and Hilken Mancini, Syrup USA/Swirlies alum Seana Carmody, Trona alum Mary Ellen Leahy, and none other than his sister. And the list doesn't end there. Songs for Betty was made with a veritable who's who of the Boston music scene: Brian Dunton (Dumptruck, Wooden Leg, Tacklebox) on bass and organ; Jerome Deupree (ex-Morphine) on drums; guitarists Michael Leahy (Buttercup, Bathing Beauties) and Jon Skibic (Juliana Hatfield, Gigolo Aunts, Ivy); mandolin whiz Jimmy Ryan (Catie Curtis, Wooden Leg, Pale Brothers); Pete Fitzpatrick (Pee Wee Fist) on banjo; Tim Kelly (Grits) on dobro and lap steel; Tim Obetz (Buttercup) on pedal steel; Meredith Cooper (Shelley Winters Project) on violin. And Duke Levine (Mary Chapin Carpenter, Dennis Brennan) chipped in on just about every type of guitar you might imagine.

That the tracks -- from the spiky radio homage of "Favorite Song" to the easygoing beauty of "Cool December Street" -- ebb and flow as smoothly as they do is remarkable given the mix of personalities. Chalk it up to musicians more interested in crafting a good song than taking a star trip. "Just having all those different ears, and people saying to me, `On this mix, why don't we try taking all of this out and just try subtle splashes of color and a harmony here, like a 12-string-guitar part here,' or whatever . . . it was almost like there were too many good ideas. Not being able to use them all was the difficult part. Just the fact that they were willing to come in and play for a bit, I'm really thankful for that."

Even so, juggling a shifting line-up can take its toll. "Lately, it's been kind of a pain in the ass, to be honest with you. I really love getting to play with people who are way better than me, but we've been tightening up the set with a more stable line-up, and that's something I'm definitely looking forward to." Hatfield's current dynamic live ensemble includes Caged Heat guitarist Tony Savarino, guitarist Chris Toppin, Jr. Corduroy bassist Janine Papp, and ex-Honeyglazed drummer Nicky Kulund. Star Hustler's Wednesday-night residency at the Lizard Lounge last month showcased a versatile and raggedly right outfit that toughened and tore at the mellower edges of Hatfield's material. Hardly what you'd expect from a guy who named his new album after the family pet.


Speaking of changes: former Star Hustler vocalist Blake Hazard is working with Jack Drag frontman John Dragonetti on a solo debut she says will be a departure from her Star Hustler work. The disc, she offers, will embrace a poppier, loop-and-sample-driven approach -- thanks in large part to Dragonetti, who's producing. "It definitely has a lot of John's influence in it," Hazard says over drinks at the Middle East. "It's not really rootsy anymore -- it's going in a really good direction."

This is a direction Hazard has wanted to explore for a while, "but I was frustrated because I don't know anything about the technology you need to make those kinds of sounds." Enter home-recording-studio whiz Dragonetti. "John and I started working together when I had this song that I wanted to do that was really funky, with loops and stuff. So I asked him if he would consider doing some remixes."

Hazard, who'll perform at the Lizard Lounge this Saturday (July 15) and again at Lilli's a week from Tuesday (July 25), says the new material reflects her growing confidence as a songwriter. "Even though I've been doing it for a few years, it feels like a beginning. I think when I started out, I was using more simple country structures. But now, I don't feel as afraid of the songwriting process. I've been listening more to other people and have had time to figure out what's going on, in terms of how songs are pieced together from different influences."

Tracks for the disc -- which Hazard says may be called Little Airplane ("the name of the song I'm most excited about") and will likely be released sometime this fall -- are being recorded at Space 67, Dragonetti's Central Square studio. Initial mixes of two songs, "Waiting" and "Everybody Knows," showcase a sweetly languorous voice tinted by a warm backdrop of percussive beats, keys, and textural washes of electric guitar not unlike, say, that of Sam Phillips's Martinis & Bikinis.

"I really want it to be her record," says Dragonetti a few days later about his first-time experience producing someone other than Jack Drag. "Her voice and her songs are the [main] elements, and you want to make sure you're not hijacking it. It's a challenge to make sure it's true to who she is."


Back on June 2 in this space I identified current Dragstrip Courage drummer Dave Foy as the former drummer for Calendar Girl. Foy actually now drums for both bands.

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