With singer/bassist (and former Berklee music student) Juliana Hatfield’s voice as the pivotal love-’em/leave-’em factor, Boston’s Blake Babies play peppy post-mod pop that has a few teeth. On the first album, drummer Freda Boner and guitarist John Strohm (both Indiana natives), Hatfield and a bassist run through collegiate numbers like “Let Them Eat Chewy Granola Bars,” “Swill and the Cocaine Sluts” and “Better ‘n You” (a handsomely harmonized duet with Evan Dando of the Lemonheads, a band for whom Strohm moonlighted on drums), demonstrating a facility for tunefully presentable songs and the unsettling range of Hatfield’s all-over-the-place singing. The habit of suddenly abandoning a nice mid-range melody to search out a high note that may elude her makes Hatfield an unpredictable and inconsistent quantity.
Dando played bass on Slow Learners (Hatfield didn’t take over that responsibility until sessions for the next LP), a more accomplished and refined seven-song collection — incorporating a country accent — that is entirely duplicated on Earwig. That album, which contains two other 1988 recordings (with a different guest bassist) and a half-dozen 1989 products of the now- autonomous trio (including a fair sexual inversion of the Stooges’ “Loose”), sets its sternly judgmental attacks (“You Don’t Give Up,” “Take Your Head off My Shoulder,” “Outta My Head,” “Your Way or the Highway,” etc.) into consistently attractive textured guitar pop.
The burst of feedback that begins both Sunburn and Hatfield’s “I’m Not Your Mother” isn’t nearly as abrasive as the song’s venomously petulant lyrics. In general, though, Juliana’s off the offensive on the Blakes’ best album: her casually blunt lyrics range from resigned victimization (“A Million Years”) to haunting desolation (“Gimme Some Mirth”) to frightening fantasies of self- destruction (“Watch Me Now, I’m Calling”). Meanwhile, Strohm’s songs (“Girl in a Box,” a rare vocal turn, and “Train,” a duet) and his collaborations (the exceptional “Out There”) provide a much needed lyrical alternative. With some of the band’s catchiest tunes (“Look Away” for one) and fewer vocal misadventures (effective harmonies mask some of those remaining), Sunburn is an ironic and frequently moving mixture of beauty and sadness.
In retrospect, the Blake Babies’ sound had a lot more in common with the first stage of Juliana Hatfield’s solo career than it seemed to at the time. (And not just because she reclaimed her song “Nirvana” from the Rosy Jack World odds’n’sods EP and recut it for her first album, or recast Earwig’s “Boiled Potato” as “Feed Me” and stuck it on her I See You EP.) The lesson of Innocence and Experience — a careful, illustrative anthology that follows the Boston trio from its first steps in 1986 to its final chapter five years later, including a few remixes, unreleased demos and a live Neil Young cover — is how fully formed the core of Hatfield’s musical persona was from the very beginning. Even songs written or co-written by guitarist John Strohm (“Cesspool,” “Lament,” the impassioned “Star”) fit cleanly into the mold, although Hatfield’s sweetly served disdain is pointier when she’s left to her own creative devices, as in “I’m Not Your Mother” and “You Don’t Give Up.”