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Feeling it
Juliana Hatfield’s Some Girls, and the last of little a

It’s doubtful Juliana Hatfield, Freda Love, and Heidi Gluck named their band Some Girls after the Rolling Stones song. They don’t seem like the type who’d give the likes of Mick Jagger money, clothes, jewelry, or a lethal dose. The foursquare drumming, lite-grit rhythm guitar, pulsing bass, dollops of slide and lap-steel six-string, and direct pop vocal melodies just seem too grounded to be the work of women who’d tolerate a rooster like Mick. Indeed, on their group’s debut, Feel It (Koch), they simply sound like some girls — or better, some adept women musicians — who got together to have a good time and record.

They also sound like some girls who despite their collegiate indie-rock pasts have been listening to some really rootsy music. The keyboards and harmonica on "Almost True" sound learned from the Band, and the number’s broken-love story would sound just as natural coming from a country singer. Then there’s the version of the long-dead bluesman Robert Johnson’s "Malted Milk" that closes Feel It. Although the music misses the dire acuity of Johnson’s deft picking and slicing slide, as well as the taint of misery that rings in his voice, there’s nonetheless something lovely and touching about their version. Driven by Hatfield’s spare guitar chords and Love’s simple, restrained drumming and colored by Gluck’s lap steel, the arrangement is a blackboard for Hatfield’s vocals. She sings in her softest, roundest register, letting notes hang with a blend of misery and resignation that’s a very adult contrast to the girlish chirp that’s sometimes been a wearying quality in her earlier recordings. Actually, Some Girls boast some of the best vocal performances that Hatfield has recorded, like the breathy melody she carves through "Necessito" aided by the harmonies from Love and Gluck.

Some Girls are playing the Met Café in Providence on Tuesday and the Paradise here in Boston on Wednesday, right on the heels of Feel It’s release last Tuesday. Although they’re a new band, Love and Hatfield have shared the stage many times in the past. Both, along with guitarist John Strohm, were members of the Blake Babies, a Boston outfit that was equally loved and hated for its rickety, off-kilter songs and stage persona. As with the case with Galaxie 500, another quirky Boston group who played the clubs in the mid to late 1980s, the Blake Babies’ cult of admirers kept growing after their break-up, and it did so even through Hatfield’s MTV-level solo career.

In 2000, a full decade after the Blake Babies split, Love instigated a reunion and they recorded their best album, God Bless the Blake Babies (Zoë/Rounder), which benefitted from skills improved by experience all around. Hatfield had recorded acclaimed sugar pop like Hey Babe and Only Everything for the Mammoth and Atlantic labels; Strohm and Love had continued on in the pricklier Antenna and then split, with Strohm heading on to solo work and Love helping to form the rhythmic and rootsy Mysteries of Life, who at times sound like a funkier early Rolling Stones.

The release of God Bless the Blake Babies sparked a reunion tour, and that led to Some Girls. "I really liked the energy of the Blake Babies being back together again," says Hatfield when she and Love phone from a conference room at their record label. "It really felt great at first, but then the differences that John and I used to have started to make themselves felt again." So after the tour, it was once again finito for the Blake Babies. But Hatfield and Love kept collaborating. "When I went to Indiana to record demos of these songs with Freda, we wanted a bass player for the sessions, so Freda hired Heidi."

"Heidi was a local musician around Indianapolis who had gotten a great reputation really quickly," Love explains. "She’s an excellent multi-instrumentalist."

"It felt so good playing with Heidi," Hatfield continues, "that we asked if she wanted to be in the band."

The Providence and Boston dates are the two opening concerts on a national tour that will continue through mid October, but Hatfield, Love, and Gluck are stage-ready. Love has been busy with Mysteries of Life. Gluck’s other band, the Pieces, opened ex-Lemonhead Evan Dando’s recent comeback tour. And Hatfield returned to her first instrument, bass, as part of Dando’s band.

"For me, leaving a major-record label and floating out of the public eye has been uplifting, because it’s enabled me to focus on my music," Hatfield says. "There’s no pressure, no commercial constraints on what I do or anything like that. I’ve been working with Zoë and Rounder [which released her solo Beautiful Creature and a disc by her group Juliana’s Pony in 2000], and they’re really great about letting me do what I want."

She’s also returned to an early creative love, painting and drawing, and she was part of the "Between Rock and an Art Place" show of visual art by local musicians at Cambridge’s Zeitgeist Gallery early this year. "I started out as a very artistic child and gave up visual art when I discovered guitar. It’s another really fulfilling creative pursuit. Between that and the Some Girls record and my solo albums, it’s all really good to be living a creative life. I need to do it all. I haven’t found the right avenue where it’s all falling seamlessly into place, but it all feels right."

WHEREAS FEEL IT is the work of a pair of local veterans moving into a new creative phase together, little a’s new four-song EP, Starsfade (Sayaaahh!!), marks the closing of a chapter for singer Bruce Grover and guitarist David Kirkdorffer. They formed little a as a snarling duo nine years ago, mating Grover’s muscular, rock-star-worthy delivery with Kirkdorffer’s nasty, expansive six-string attack. Despite sounding like a small tornado and opening for the likes of the drum-heavy Concussion Ensemble and delirious hard-rockers the Bent Men, little a were sometimes perceived as a folk outfit, so Kirkdorffer and Grover added a drummer. Over the years and through three CDs — 1996’s a, 1999’s b, and 2001’s Scene, all on their own Sayaaahh!! label — the drum seat changed. Eventually, veteran Boston-rock sticksman Danny Lee (formerly of Uzi, Czema, and the Concussion Ensemble) completed the band’s definitive trio line-up, which proved that a smart take on romantic and ironic pop themes could also be powerful.

The final little a roster also included bassist Bob Matros, who appears on several of Scene’s songs and is on all four cuts on Starsfade. "Adding Bob almost broke up the band, it was such a big deal for us," says Grover. "Danny really insisted that we needed bass to open up the sound. David almost quit over it. Our idea when we founded the band was to get away from the big rock thing."

Starsfade is, instead, all over the big rock thing, but in a colorful, entrancing way. The EP is arranged to balance hefty-bottomed drive with beautiful, soaring high-end textures. "Wishes Fishes" opens with an arch of feedback, then comes to ground with a static rhythmic charge that matches the angry/confused need for fulfillment in Grover’s lyrics. The bridges open up the song in different ways, relaxing and then jacking up the tension. On the opening "Tomorrow," Grover croons his misery over a tight fist of drums and bass while Kirkdorffer’s guitar slashes in with blurts of noise, balancing a countermelody with atonal chords.

The band’s blend of ease and uneasiness won them plenty of airplay and a hardcore following but never the national audience they deserved. In March 2002, at the Abbey Lounge in Inman Square, they played their last show. "This EP is a way of saying thank you to our fans and friends and the radio stations that supported us," says Grover. "We also had these songs, which we really love, lying around, and putting out an EP is a lot better than letting them sit in the basement."

Grover and Kirkdorffer may do a gig or so to celebrate the disc’s release. Meanwhile, Grover has embarked on making solo music that’s as appealing as little a’s best numbers. He released a CD, Gigantic, last October on his own Buji Baba imprint and has been playing shows accompanied by his acoustic guitar, a cellist, and sometimes a drummer. (His next gig is at Cambridge’s Kendall Café next Thursday.) There’s more humor in his solo writing, and more romance, too. It’s a mix that’s perfect for his tightly focused but elastic singing, and the cello complements his warm, expressive range — sometimes by weaving countermelodies around his vocal lines.

"This is something I really wanted to do, and it’s allowed me to lighten up a little bit," he says. "little a always brought something really heavy out of me. I had such a great partnership working with David. Whether we continue collaborating in some way is up in the air right now, but working with him was always really rewarding."

Some Girls play the Met Café, 130 Union Street in Providence, this Tuesday, September 16; call (401) 861-2142. They’re at the Paradise, 967 Commonwealth Avenue, this Wednesday, September 17; call (617) 562-8800. Bruce Glover is at the Kendall Café, 233 Cardinal Medeiros Way in Cambridge, next Thursday, September 18; call (617) 661-0993.

Issue Date: September 12 - 18, 2003
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