Just as the trio was hitting its stride with its best album, 1990’s Sunburn, the Blake Babies greeted the new decade by breaking up. Singer/bassist Juliana Hatfield lit out for the big time, picking up a guitar and staking out turf as the Sassy-generation spokeswoman for adolescent angst — a niche particularly well-suited to the girlish quality of her singing voice. Along the way she also became something of a gossip subject, thanks to an ambiguous long-term relationship with Lemonheads leader Evan Dando and her 1993 claim/admission that she was still a virgin. Discriminating listeners, meanwhile, argued about whether she was better as a Blake Baby.
There’s no real consensus on that issue, although it’s poseur-fashionable to diss Hatfield’s early albums…just because. With Gary Smith producing and studio contributions from Dando, Mike Watt and John Wesley Harding, Hey Babe is a solid solo debut, filled with jangly guitar, a textbook’s worth of hooks and lots of singalong melodies. Throughout, Hatfield sings about unrequited love and a debilitating lack of confidence that’s hard to take seriously; on “Ugly,” she sings “I’m ugly, with a capital U” with so much infectious exuberance you can practically hear hallways full of high-school girls joining in. “Everybody Loves Me but You,” however, outlines the kind of precious arrogance some find so off-putting. Forever Baby is a five-song EP: three album tracks and two new ones, including a song written by J Mascis. I See You borrows two more from Hey Babe and adds three from a late-’92 session produced by Lou Giordano.
Billing it the Juliana Hatfield Three, Hatfield re-embraced a group vibe — kind of — for Become What You Are: bassist Dean Fisher and ex- Bullet LaVolta drummer Todd Philips muscle up the sound, but it’s still Hatfield’s show. She again taps into the teen zeitgeist (“Spin the Bottle,” “I Got No Idols”), but this time explores more complex, ambivalent emotions. “Supermodel” takes resentful aim at those who are marketed for their beauty (“The highest paid piece of ass / You know it’s not going to last / Those magazines end up in the trash”) but also views their stardom from the point of view of a mate. The necessarily fictionalized “My Sister” (she doesn’t have one) concerns love/hate sibling relationships — until Hatfield changes tense (“I miss my sister / Why’d she go?”). Namechecking the Violent Femmes and the Del Fuegos, Hatfield cruises through another batch of songs that play easy on the ears — and, more often than not, stick in them.
Hatfield cranked it up on Only Everything without losing her instinctive pop charms or her treatises on what she describes as “white, middle-class angst.” (Blessedly, nobody asked about her sexual experience this time around.) Dense layers of punky guitar fury propel “What a Life” and the all-French “Fleur de Lys,” while “OK OK” and “Congratulations” lean more toward power pop. “Simplicity Is Beautiful” mines a prettier end of the spectrum; the boisterous “Dumb Fun” lives up to its title. The album’s most striking track — and its semi-hit single — “Universal Heart-Beat” uses a riveting electric piano lick to bridge its bright verses and hard-rocking choruses. The song’s key line, “A heart that hurts / Is a heart that works,” provides a manifesto that applies to every song of Hatfield’s solo output.
After a bitter battle with Atlantic about her fourth solo album, the still-unreleased God’s Foot, Hatfield spewed out her venom about the major label experience on the Please Do Not Disturb EP. The leadoff track, “Sellout,” sums it all up with the lines “I was only trying to make it / Now I can’t fake it anymore / It’s not a sellout if nobody buys it.” That nails it, but the other tracks are buried by Hatfield’s not-so-subtle lyrics and unfocused production, which makes it all sound like rough mixes.
Bed is a step up, production-wise, from Please Do Not Disturb, yet Hatfield is still in a venomous mood. The music is her most aggressive ever, at times almost approaching hard rock. Hatfield matches the sonic force with lyrics that could have come directly from the pages of a journal about one incredibly dysfunctional relationship. (All eyes in the room again turn to…Evan Dando.) “I Want to Want You” opens with a damning portrait of a musician throwing his gifts away (“Dust off the instruments / Do you still know how to play? / With the pride of lions you rub me the wrong way / Stick your hand in the cookie jar, pull out bad poetry”). And with the various depictions of suicide in “Swan Song,” it’s obvious that Hatfield hasn’t been dreaming about a fictional sister this time around.
Hatfield returned in 2000 with two albums released on the same day. Beautiful Creature stakes out more of the same lyrical territory about that musician boyfriend that messed with her (“Cool Rock Boy,” “Choose Drugs,” as in, “I say it’s me or drugs / You choose drugs”). But this time, she takes a slower, more folk-rock approach to much of the material, influenced perhaps by Austin singer Davíd Garza, who plays lead guitar on much of the album. Hatfield even sings about moving on with optimism on the disc’s ballad, “Somebody Is Waiting for Me.”
Total System Failure, issued under the awkward band name Juliana’s Pony, is the polar opposite of Beautiful Creature. Hatfield, bassist Mikey Welsh (later of Weezer) and drummer Zephan Courtney bash out some of Hatfield’s most bitter (and half-finished) songs. Most of the time she sounds set on trying to make a grunge record eight years too late. It’s easily the weakest album in her career and sounds even worse when compared to the subtle path of Beautiful Creature, although there is something mortifyingly fascinating about the utterly disastrous tone in which Hatfield portrays her life and loves. (The two albums were combined in a 2000 package with a bonus disc containing Hatfield’s cover of the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” and an alternate mix of Beautiful Creature‘s “When You Loved Me.”)
Hatfield’s time in two different bands (Blake Babies and Some Girls) led to a four-year break between solo studio albums, and gave her a chance to relocate her songwriting groove. The songs on In Exile Deo are her strongest yet, with sharp character studies (“Because We Love You,” “Singing in the Shower”), breezy ’60s-influenced pop (“Sunshine,” “Some Rainy Sunday”) and even the silliest song she’s ever done (“Dirty Dog”). Her voice never sounded more confident in telling tales of romantic woe; her guitar playing is up to a new level. On a couple of tracks her solos screech all over the place, halt suddenly, then seamlessly get back on track. It’s as if Hatfield absorbed Neil Young’s way of soloing, with emotion favored over technical perfection. “My Enemy,” with an unusual ’60s-style Hammond organ and a crashing guitar solo, is one of the album’s peaks; In Exile Deo is a high point in a career filled with them.
Gold Stars is a collection of most of Hatfield’s singles, with two tracks from the unreleased God’s Foot album, four previously unreleased songs meant for a solo effort Hatfield put aside for the Blake Babies reunion and covers of “Every Breath You Take” and Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart.” A stellar overview of the best work Hatfield did in her first decade as a solo artist, it’s the place to start for anyone interested in her fascinating, at times puzzling, career.
After the somewhat commercial-sounding In Exile Deo, Hatfield returned to her indie roots by self-releasing Made in China. The “I shot myself” photo of her naked torso on the cover is almost as revealing as Hatfield’s lyrics here, which run the gamut from self-criticism (“It’s a miracle I’m here” in “What Do I Care”) to self-pity (“I’m just an object to you like books and shoes” in “Stay Awake”) to pleas for help (“If you have to pray for me, tell God to send me some money” in “Send Money”). Made in China is a raw, angry album that is difficult to endure at points due to the emotionally naked lyrics, but the lo-fi, almost punky, music is a perfect fit for the issues Hatfield is sorting through here.
For all her urbane Eastern sophistication, Hatfield has never disconnected herself from the simple Midwestern directness of her original bandmates, and it has been a tonic to her music. Like a disillusioned ingenue heading home for a centering emotional recharge, Hatfield continued working with drummer Freda Love after the 2000-’01 Blake Babies reunion by forming a part-time all-female variation on the trio, drafting Indiana bassist Heidi Gluck to complete the lineup of Some Girls. Produced in Bloomington by Love’s hubby and Mysteries of Life bandmate Jake Smith, Feel It favors their measured restraint, an emotionally resonant derivative of the Vulgar Boatmen, for whom he has played bass. The songs, written individually and collectively by Love and Hatfield, are plainspokenly romantic with winning meloodies, played with an even keel and the strength of strings, not cranked amplifiers. Even better, Hatfield’s often-bared obsessive one-man misery is leavened by the presence of equal partners in this enterprise; the result is sweeter, gentler and a whole lot sexier than a lot of Hatfield’s tougher solo rock. Finely wrought without being fussy, Feel It achieves its titular mission handily.