Sunday, August 11, 2013

Blake Babies / Juliana Hatfield 1987-2001

A friend recently let me borrow her Juliana Hatfield collection, most of which is from the 90s, and does not include Ms. Hatfield's more recent work. But it was some fascinating listening, and a study in the maturing of an artist. I'll deal with them chronologically.

The Blake Babies Nicely, Nicely 1987 is a rough sketch for what the band will become. It has some good songs, but suffers from poor recordings and weak production values. Some people like that. You can hear the melodic songs hiding in punk guises, the loud edge scraping against Hatfield's high thin voice.  

Next up was my friend's favorite from her college days. Sunburn 1990 is surely an early career highlight for Hatfield and Blake Babies, and it features the guitar of John Strohm, who by this point is working hand in hand with Hatfield. It really is a band. Hatfield's girlish voice can deal with heavy themes and still sound like fun, and the songwriting is strong. Strohm is an imaginative guitar player that will be sorely missed early in Hatfield's coming solo career. The first half of the CD is killer, and after that it still holds up pretty well.

When Blake Babies split in 1991, Hatfield moved from bass to guitar for her solo career. The 1992 EP Forever Baby, mostly culled from her 1992 debut Hey Babe, has some good songs, as does the follow-up The Juliana Hatfield Three's Become What You Are 1993. But Hatfield's guitar really doesn't do her songs justice, and instrumentally they come off lacking. Too much rhythm, not enough else. And she was a great bass player with Blake Babies. They both have a couple of great songs, but only a couple.

So just when I'm thinking of giving up on her solo output, along comes Only Everything 1995. She's still not flashy, but she's learned some chops, and her guitar playing has gotten interesting at least, and maybe there's a better fit producing. But what sets this one apart from it's predecessors is the consistent song quality. What A Life, Live On Tomorrow, Bottles And Flowers, Hang Down From Heaven, and several others are notably fine. The sound is getting a bit more aggressive, and it's a good thing.

The follow-up, 1998's Bed is almost as strong, and ramps up the punk noise on a few songs as well. I didn't find quite as many memorable songs, but your mileage may vary.

The last one I got to hear was God Bless The Blake Babies 2001, their generally well-received reunion effort. It left me a little flat, although I couldn't quite figure out why. It just didn't quite sound like that band anymore, and maybe there was some energy lacking.

I didn't hear everything she released during this time span, but I heard enough to understand why Sunburn left an indelible impression on my friend, and how good Only Everything was. The loud punk-pop combined with the girlish voice reminds me of Tanya Donelly's band Belly sometimes, and for me that's a very good thing. Hatfield continues to make music to this day, including five records in the last six years. It's easy to hear why people are still interested.

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