The Boston Phoenix
November 13 - 20, 1997

[Music Reviews]

| clubs by night | bands in town | club directory | pop concerts | classical concerts | reviews | hot links |

This year's model

Catching up with the new Juliana Hatfield

by Brett Milano

[Juliana Hatfield] Look into the great women-in-rock hype of 1997, and you'll see a lot of Juliana Hatfield. Not that Hatfield herself has been too visible lately: she's between major-label deals, her latest album is a year overdue, her new release, Please Do Not Disturb, is a one-off indie EP on Bar/None, and her show at the Paradise this weekend will be her first in-town appearance (save for a small-stage set at the Lilith Fair) in nearly a year. But the songwriting voice on her early albums seems to be echoed everywhere lately. On the albums that followed her 1991 exit from the Blake Babies, Hatfield wrote sweet, childlike pop tunes that concealed a lot of grown-up bitterness. She was beautiful, fashionable, and popular, yet she wrote convincingly about being ugly, unloved, and out of step, exploring the conceptual territory where Jewel, Fiona Apple, and Paula Cole now reside.

That doesn't mean that Hatfield felt herself a role model when she played the Lilith dates last summer. "I still felt like the underdog," she tells me at a South End café, a day before departing for a month-long tour of Australia. "The tour was fine -- that's how I sum it up. It wasn't a bad time and it wasn't very exciting. I got to see performers I never appreciated before, like Joan Osborne and Emmylou Harris; but I was definitely a little insecure. Everything on the tour was so smooth, there needed to be more harder-edged acts. I felt like we were the outcasts -- the sloppy, dirty people."

By most accounts, Hatfield did better on Lilith than she thinks. She ran off with better reviews than some of the headliners, and at least one major-label rep was there to see her at Great Woods. "But I still haven't had the huge hit," she points out. "People are still rooting for me somehow. I feel like we're representing something more underground, something that's disappearing -- but a lot of people wouldn't want to hear me say that."

Neither is she inclined to wave the women-in-rock flag; in fact she feels that the recent Lilith-related successes have gotten her off the hook. "There have been a lot of huge hits by women lately, so that's shut people up -- even though they're all in the traditional vein of pop songs by women. So having them sell lots of records has gotten people off my case. They've all moved past me and on to somebody else."

Hatfield went from buzz-bin artist to noble underdog rather quickly. Her third solo album, Only Everything (Atlantic, 1994), was a creative step forward -- to these ears, the first time she'd lived up to her notices -- but a major commercial setback. That could have been because fashions were changing. Sensitive songwriters from Boston apparently weren't selling anymore, and Hatfield wasn't the last one to meet a backlash. Later came the Lemonheads' car button cloth, Buffalo Tom's Sleepy Eyed, and this year, Dinosaur Jr's Hand It Over and, most recently, Tanya Donelly's Lovesongs for Underdogs. But Hatfield also may have sealed her fate by growing up and not playing the wounded-waif card anymore. The songs on Only Everything had a harder electric sound than before -- no small feat, since all the guitars and some of the bass were hers. And though pop was still her home base, the songs took darker and less obvious twists.

That makes Please Do Not Disturb a logical follow-up, but it's still a pretty surprising record, not just for the venom it bears, but for how well she carries it off. Take away the two acoustic songs (including "Trying Not To Think About It," a haunting one about her friend Jeff Buckley's death) and you've got what may be the year's catchiest temper tantrum. With help from ex-Jocobono bassist Mike Welsh, guitarists Ed Slanker and Mike Leahy, and longtime bandmate Todd Phillips on drums, Hatfield continues the last album's move to a dirtier sound. But there's a wasted/jaded quality in her voice that's never been there before, most notably when she sneers "If I had half of what you had, I would be so fucking glad" during the metallish "Give Me Some of That." At times it feels like a "striking back at the music business" kind of album: the nastiest song, "Get Off," is the sort of thing a private person would naturally write after five years of growing up in public ("I'm not here to serve your needs/Get off of me"). And the opener, "Sellout," borrows the Beatles' "Taxman" riff for a catchy chorus of "It's not a sellout if nobody buys it."

"The tone is kind of cranky," she admits. "A lot of people wouldn't want to hear about the kind of things I'm saying, so this is for the diehard and the curious. I haven't put out anything in a long time, so I've had to sit back and watch other people do things I wish I could be doing. And I probably vented some frustration because of that. I thought other people could understand the feeling of wanting something just out of your reach. That's what rock and pop are about, right?"

The inspiration for "Get Off" goes back to the women-in-rock issue, as well as an interview she didn't care for. "It was one particular journalist -- a woman who wrote one of those articles taking issue with my last album for not holding up a flag for feminism. She thought that every woman doing music should be on some kind of crusade." (She declines to name the writer, but it's worth noting that Ann Powers wrote such an article in the Village Voice.) But Hatfield says that "Sellout" is less autobiographical. "I hope people don't think it's about me, because it's not. I'm pointing a finger at someone who lets that happen to themselves, but I'm also sympathizing because it's easy to do. I haven't let that happen to myself. I always feel real conflicted about things like photo shoots. But when I do music, I don't let anyone interfere with that."

None of the tracks on the new EP was intended for the album-in-progress, which is tentatively called God's Foot and already is long overdue. Some of the songs (including a countryish, midtempo one that blew a few people away) were performed at the Middle East last Christmas. But there's the rub: Hatfield knows that she's sitting on some of her best songs, and she's reluctant to let anyone release them if the circumstances aren't right. She already lobbied to get herself off Atlantic, worrying that the new album would fall through the cracks the way Only Everything did.

Meanwhile, she's already recorded two albums' worth of songs. "It's never going to end if I don't just stop it. It's morphed into something different from what it was two years ago -- it's prettier pop in flavor, not as loud as the last one. I want a lot of people to hear it, and I want a record company that will understand what I do and spend time getting a message out. But if that doesn't happen . . . I don't know, at this point I'm real humble. I want to kiss people's feet for even showing up. I've definitely learned patience over the past two years, at least I can still fill small clubs. But now I'm getting all freaked out that the next album will come out and nobody will hear it. I'm almost tempted just to let it sit -- at least I haven't had my dreams shattered yet."

In truth Hatfield's prospects don't look that bleak, not to judge from the response I've heard to Lilith and to the new EP. "Some people can't live with the ebb. When there's a downsizing in your career, you think it's the end. You just have to learn to live with less. So at the moment I'm getting my shit together and steeling myself for the future."


The Mighty Mighty Bosstones have a Christmas song coming that locals might find familiar. "It Sure Don't Seem Like Christmas" was first recorded by the Dogmatics (it was written by their late bassist, Paul O'Halloran) back in 1984. The Bosstones' version, a more upbeat one than the Dogmatics' original ballad, will be on a Mercury charity compilation. Expect details soon on another "Hometown Throwdown" from the band . . . The cover of Mary Lou Lord's overdue major-label debut, Got No Shadow (WORK/Columbia), shows her in a familiar setting: standing in front of a Red Line train. To be released January 27, the album includes guest appearances by Shawn Colvin and Nick (Bevis Frond) Saloman, who wrote material with her . . . Buffalo Tom are back in the major-label game. Earlier this month they signed a new deal with PolyGram. Work begins this month on their long-delayed sixth album, material from which should be previewed at the Middle East in December . . . Peter Wolf has been dropped by Warner Bros. but picked up by Mercury; he'll be back with a new solo album in the spring . . . Steve Wynn has hooked up with yet another Boston-associated guitarist, original Dumptruck member Kirk Swan, for a tour that should bring him back to town in the winter . . . And this week's reunion rumor: the Neighborhoods, said to be pondering a couple of live appearances in January.


The Stephen Fredette benefit begins at T.T. the Bear's Place tonight (Thursday), with a host of notable bands, including Charlie Chesterman, David Minehan, the Wheelers & Dealers, Boy Wonder, and Pete Weiss. Meanwhile there's a release party for the Girls! Girls! Girls! CD at the Linwood, with Shiva Speedway and Planet Queen, and Quintaine Americana are at O'Brien's . . . Tomorrow (Friday) the Stephen Fredette benefit continues at T.T.'s with the Titanics, Crown Electric, Lazy Susan, Eric Martin & the Illyrians, the Gravy, and Elbow. Also on Friday, Asa Brebner and the Varmints are at Club Bohemia, Combustible Edison play the Middle East, Boy Wonder, the Pills, and Ramona Silver are at O'Brien's, Todd Thibaud is at the Attic, and the Austin pop band Hannah Cranna, whose CD was produced by Joey Molland of Badfinger, play Mama Kin . . . On Saturday Memphis rowdies Big Ass Truck play Johnny D's, Ratt (yes, THAT Ratt) play Mama Kin, Gang Green and the Ape Hangers are at the Rat, Chevy Heston and Pansy Division are at T.T.'s, the Noise has a party with Red Telephone and Sugar Twins at the Middle East, Lizzie Borden's band the Finch Family are at the Hard Rock, and the Weaklings and Doom Buggies are at Club Bohemia . . . And Sunday brings the Apples in Stereo to the Middle East upstairs while Laurie Geltman and Jim's Big Ego play a Club Passim benefit downstairs.
[Music Footer]

| home page | what's new | search | about the phoenix | feedback |
Copyright © 1997 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group. All rights reserved.