JULIANA'S PONY: TOTAL SYSTEM FAILURE
by Robin Vaughan
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With the simultaneous release of two distinctly different but equally powerful new albums, Juliana Hatfield begins the 21st century with her unorthodox vision intact.
The alternative pop-star who left a major label in 1996 to produce her own album on her own dime has once again broken with conventional wisdom. Although the double release is not unprecedented (Bruce Springsteen and Guns N' Roses are among those who've done it before), it's the kind of creative move that makes industry types queasy. Industry rules and expectations make Hatfield just as uneasy, but the double album was not something she had expected to do. Her motivation for presenting both sides of her bipolar musical identity at the same time was simple: It felt like the thing to do. "I feel I definitely have more than one personality," she said. "It gets frustrating when you make an album and you capture one side but then you leave this whole other side of you, unexpressed."
It was a natural happenstance that both projects came together in close succession. For about a year, she had been busy recording Beautiful Creature, a collection of beautiful pop songs and quietly probing ballads, in a variety of studios with different players and producers (including Scott Litt, Wally Gagel and David Garza). When the album was finished, she had "energy to burn," she said. "I wanted to do something that was pure fun, and fast, different." So she called a couple of her Boston rock pals, bassist Mikey Welsh of Weezer and drummer Zephan Courtney of the Boston band Milligram, "rehearsed a few times," and the big, bad rock trio Juliana's Pony was born.
With these releases, Hatfield's enormous range as a guitarist and songwriter becomes more apparent than ever, and the childlike voice of her earlier work has matured. She sings a few shades darker, a little lower in tone; the lyrics are still searching, but more knowing. Beautiful Creature is vulnerable and brave, threatened and insistently hopeful. "I wait all day/ It's torture," she croons with sexual yearning amid the snaking, insidiously seductive rhythms of "Daniel," the opening track. On "Cool Rock Boy," the musical atmosphere is awake and restless, the lyrics anxious, pricked by needling self-doubting: "Please erase me if you don't like what you see." On the album's gorgeously sweet first single, "Somebody Is Waiting For Me," Hatfield seems to find her emotional perspective ("Please forgive me for finding something real and pure and true") and the gentle, catchy, rhythm soothes like a lullaby. The album, said Hatfield, revolves around her concept of "the beautiful creature" as "a man, or different men, or a composite of them. It's about the feeling of being taken in by someone."
Total System Failure, is nobody's sucker. Any doubts about Hatfield's prowess, as a rock guitar hero will be buried under this onslaught of hard-chomping monster metal grooves and delirious acid-rock solos. The Juliana's Pony material is as gritty and mean, as Beautiful Creature is fragile. "Little white boy, you make a great slave," Hatfield taunts fiendishly in a buoyant stream of descending harmonies on one song. But the mean streak that runs through the album is tempered by lots of dark humor and decidedly un-serious subject matter (in "Leather Pants:" "that bad-boy style is wearing you"). But much of Total System Failure echoes the unforgiving disgust implicit in the title song: "How do you get up in the morning? / Another wasted life/ It's so boring." The album's monster riffs propel monstrous subject matter. The human condition, Hatfield finds, is horrifying. Anorexia, reckless "breeding," trash-TV culture, ridiculous vanity -- it's all here, in disturbing color. "Someone knocked me up again... can someone make me beautiful and thin?" Hatfield sings bitingly on "The Victim." In "Let's Get Married," she's a wannabe-bride from hell, nagging for a wedding, a baby, a "doggie tied to a chain."
Both collections make a provocative picture of the human condition on their own. Together, they tell a complete story, from beauty to beastliness. To Hatfield, putting the two disparate perspectives together made sense. "It happened so naturally," she said. "Those are both real sides of me. I just let them show."
Juliana Hatfield can already look back on a multi-faceted, decade-spanning career that has established her as one of the defining musical voices of her generation. As a founding bassist with the critically acclaimed, teenaged indie trio the Blake Babies (the band she formed in 1990 with schoolmates from Boston's Berklee College of Music), she distinguished herself as a compellingly original musician and songwriter years before "women in rock" became a form of marketing currency for the decade. With her honey-sweet, crooning vocals, her gift for turning out irresistible hooks and a level of musicianship that far outclasses many of her contemporaries on the '90s indie-girl bandwagon, Hatfield has always had more than trendy gender and genre classifications to define her. Her music is a study in inherent contradiction: Under the shy demeanor and innocently girlish voice are slyly sardonic (and occasionally downright mean) lyrical observations; the engaging hooks are ear-candy, but the fluidly snaking song structures that carry them follow a forceful and sophisticated vision. She is rock-star tough and movie-star pretty, but she defies easy packaging. The box never felt quite right.
As she grew up in the alternative music scene, Hatfield rose to pop-star fame, gradually ascending from indie-darling to big-league player status. Hey Babe, her solo debut on Mammoth, was the most successful indie release of 1992. After several critically acclaimed independent releases, she moved into the majors with Become What You Are, her debut album on Mammoth/Atlantic. The record's mega-hit single, "My Sister," along with "Spin the Bottle" (her second hit single, from the "Reality Bites" soundtrack), made Hatfield a music-mag cover girl from Alternative Press to Spin. But for Hatfield, who commands respect as a musician's musician (her subtly complex song structures have been transcribed in guitar-hero magazines including Guitar World and Guitar Player), the celebrity spotlight wasn't always a happy place to be. "I was so completely uncomfortable with all of that," she said. "That period gave me a career but I'm sort of embarrassed by all the attention, looking back." Moreover, the musical mold dictated by industry trends became constraining to her growth as an artist. "I feel I don't really fit in anywhere, and I don't think I ever did," Hatfield said.
"There was a moment back then, a few years ago, when I had a song on the radio ("My Sister") and the timing was right for it because stuff that was a little more quirky stuff was being played on the air. But that was sort of a fluke window of opportunity. I was playing that style of music anyway. I can't be worrying about trying to fit into what is popular at any moment. I'd rather just be able to continue doing what I do." Frustrated by a lack of label support for her last record with Atlantic (God's Foot, considered by many critics and fans to be her creative masterwork), she decided to reroute her career in 1996, walking away from the unreleased album and her label deal to strike out on her own. Hooking up with some cronies from the Boston music scene, she recorded and produced the vibrant and free-ranging Bed independently before planning what to do with the album once it was finished.
Happily, a licensing deal with ZoŽ put Bed on the racks, and Hatfield has continued the relationship with the release of Beautiful Creature and Total System Failure on ZoŽ/Rounder. With these latest contributions to her catalog, Hatfield once again asserts herself as a musical artist who is not easily categorized, and less easily dismissed. She speaks for herself, and her voice is more commanding than ever.
Since 1992 when she first stepped out from the ground-breaking Blake Babies, a Boston band she founded with other students from the Berklee School of Music, Juliana Hatfield has plowed her own path through musical trends, through the folly of fashion and around the cult of personality which surrounds other seminal songwriters of her generation. After the success of her critically-acclaimed Hey Babe, released on Mammoth Records and the biggest independent success that year, Juliana joined the roster at Atlantic Records and shortly afterward set to work on Become What You Are, produced by Scott Litt (REM, Indigo Girls). The inflammatory and affectionate "My Sister" from that album with its controversial lyrics ("she's such a bitch") set a tone for a generation of female singer songwriters and opened the airwaves to a new frankness among women. Nevertheless nonplused by the myopic attention given to women-in-rock, Hatfield kept a level head and maintained her focus on perfecting her craft, always more important to her than gender splendor in a male-dominated profession. In stark contrast to every expectation of vulgar feminism, Hatfield released a second single, "Spin the Bottle," from the cult classic film, "Reality Bites" which recounted the girlish thrill and naivete of a passing crush on celebrity and, intentionally or otherwise, set up a clever parallel to her own flirtation with stardom. Throughout a year of magazine covers such as Spin and Alternative Press, Juliana maintained her stature as a musician's musician.
Widely proclaimed as a new if somewhat reluctant guitar hero in such old-boy publications as Guitar World and Guitar Player Magazine, which have transcribed her unique voicing and song structures, Hatfield continued to develop the raw power already inherent in her vocals and melodies. Quick on the heels of Become What You Are, she released Only Everything, co-produced by Juliana with Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade (Hole, Radiohead, Dinosaur Junior) and on which she played the lion's share of instruments. Only Everything captured a harder-edged and more mature Juliana who had begun to recognize the value of human frailty as an indication of one's strength of character and no longer the burden evinced in her previous work. "A heart that hurts is a heart that works," she sang in the anthemic "Universal Heartbeat" with its powerful Marshal-On-Eleven chorus and its snaky lounge-piano verses, a manifesto to the power of feelings, a mantra against emotional indifference and a paean to everyone who knows the value of risking one's heart.
After a world tour of Only Everything, Juliana Hatfield took time off to write and record her next project, Please Do Not Disturb, a one-off EP released in the fall of 1997 on Bar/None Records. This time producing herself, she adopted an eclectic approach to songwriting and a more casual style of recording, ducking into the studio when she could and recording just a few songs at a time to keep abreast of her prolific output. Juliana spent three months on the road playing the new material which was widely received as a positive step back to her rock roots.
About Please Do Not Disturb, The Boston Globe wrote, "Hatfield's music is off-kilter in the best sense of the word. It's finely wrought and jangly loose, rooted in convention and consistently unpredictable." Spin magazine said, "'Sellout,' the first track on Please Do Not Disturb, makes one of the most succinct statements to date regarding the mootness of the art vs. commerce debate." And of her live show, The Chicago Tribune says, "Hatfield fell into her guitar like Rapunzel spinning gold, pulling out of it the sweet and crunchy pop rock hooks that have defined her career since her days with the Blake Babies. The Washington Sunday Times noted simply that Please Do Not Disturb "represents real growth and maturity in Miss Hatfield's talent."
In March of 1998, while waiting for the perfect label situation to emerge, Juliana had a brainstorm: in opposition to all the brutal anticipation which accompanies professional musicianship these days, why not write and record an entire album of material in just a few weeks. She decided to record the ten songs of Bed with only a week of rehearsals so the songs were still fresh and exciting when they hit the magnetic tape. Once again teaming up with Todd Philips on drums and Mikey Welsh (who's recently joined Weezer) on bass, Hatfield produced the project, played all the guitars and keyboards and sang all the vocals. She had one rule throughout the recording: no effects, no reverb, no delay, no compression and no digital processing of any sort. Jon Williams, who recorded the album at Providence's new Sound Station Seven, claims that holding to Juliana's rule was at times difficult, but notes that "however hard it was to make a completely dry record, I think it accounts - at least in part - for how honest the songs sound."
Juliana elaborates, "Not having the option to second-guess everything gave the records a special energy. There's a freedom in a lack of choices which forced me to get to the essence of the songs more easily." Hatfield's impetuousness paid off and in June she licensed this work to Rounder Records and its new imprint, ZoŽ.
From first wailing feedback of "Down On Me," Bed's cranky and self-affirming opener, to the fatalistic anti-materialism of the album's closer, "Let's Blow It All," Hatfield has once again demonstrated her keen ability to scrape to the bone of each emotionally-charged scenario. It's of no matter whether or not these songs are autobiographical, as listeners we feel the tensions as though they were our own. Somehow, Juliana pulls humor out of the gruesome promise of "Swan Song" and finds a kind of defeat in the escape of a bandit's bullet in "Bad Day." "Everyone alive is a survivor," she writes in "Running Out." And even with the gauge on 'E,' "Backseat" tells us to "get up, brush off the dirt, get back in and don't let go."
Everything's inside out and well it should be; Juliana Hatfield knows well the difference between appearances and reality and manages beautifully the coexistence of both on this, her fourth album and perhaps the most articulate recording of her career.
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