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Island songs
Juliana Hatfield, Vineyard Vibes, and Bill Frisell
BY JON GARELICK

Itís difficult to say whatís the bigger news for Juliana Hatfield right now, that her new album, Made in China, just came out this past Tuesday, or that itís being released on her own label, Ye Olde Records.

"It was just sort of the perfect time," she tells me as we sit outside the Hot Tin Roof club on Marthaís Vineyard, a few hours before sheís scheduled to headline as part of Berkleeís annual Vineyard Vibes festival. "The perfect opportunity, the timing opened up, and I couldnít think of any reason not to do it myself this time."

Made in China is Hatfieldís eighth full album of new material since the break-up of her band the Blake Babies in 1990. At 38, sheís made the same trip a lot of talented artists of her generation have made over the past 15 years ó indie upstart, rising star riding the wave of the post-punk explosion in alternative rock, major-label signing, then back to the indies again as the bottom fell out of the record business and major labels slashed rosters and regrouped. For a while there, the modern-rock stations who had championed artists like Hatfield, Kristin Hersh, Björk, PJ Harvey, and Aimee Mann stopped playing female artists altogether. Hatfield did her own major-label dance with Atlantic Records, had hits like "My Sister," "Spin the Bottle," and "Universal Heartbeat," then slipped into respectable cultdom with albums released through Rounder Recordsí Zoë imprint.

Hatfield had considered calling her new album "The Island," in part for the Vineyard itself, where she was spending a lot of time in a romance with another musician from the area, and also because the word represented feelings she had about herself. "Even my career is sort of a story of not belonging, not fitting in. Thatís how I see it, anyway. The commercial success I had was a fluke."

Ye Olde Records (distributed by Redeye) is, she says, a way for her to start "making money at the first record thatís sold rather than having to recoup for a label." Her experience with Atlantic left her "commitment-phobic," and so she began making records on her own, "fast and cheap," and licensing them to labels, first to Bar/None with the EP Please Do Not Disturb and eventually to Zoë. Her immediate goal is "self-sufficiency, to keep making a living. And really thatís all I want. Just to be able to make music and have some people hear it. And not have to get a day job. Simple goals. And of course Iíd like to create a masterpiece some day. I donít feel Iíve done that yet."

Some would argue sheís come close a few times, 2004ís In Exile Deo, her final album for Zoë, being the most recent. Hatfield has a knack for delivering nasty inner turmoil in sweet pop hooks accompanied by indie-bred guitar rock. The best example might be "My Sister" (from 1993ís Become What You Are), where those feelings of isolation that she talks about suggest inadequacy, even self-loathing. The feelings are mopy, self-involved, messy, but ó as in any successful art ó the strength of the artistic voice mitigates the emotions. Hatfieldís voice ó girlish, pure, defiant ó and those melodies save her from bathos. Sheís "lived to tell," as the saying goes. Her sarcastic/ironic sense of humor doesnít hurt either.

Made in China is more guitar-heavy than In Exile Deo. Hatfieldís own guitar playing on the CD has been compared with Neil Youngís, and that comes through later at the Hot Tin Roof show, in her bent paraphrases of the melody. But on "Oh," her six-string mimics the hard-edged, chunky syncopations of Gang of Four. Elsewhere on the disc, Joe Keefe of the Unbusted (the former island paramour, and a co-author of two of the discís tunes) supplies the fancy classic-rock licks.

The good news is that Hatfield sounds as big a mess as ever. And sheís just as funny. The verse of "What Do I Care" mimics "Smells like Teen Spirit." When Hatfield sings off-key over nasty bent guitar notes, "I feel funny/Is it over?/Am I dead or a asleep on the sofa?", you can follow along singing, "Here we are now/Entertain us." She follows up with "Look at me there/Iím a rock star," with references to "posers who fake it," and the Kurt channeling is complete. The chorus goes, "What the fuck/Itís a miracle/Iím even here/Youíre over me/But Iím alive/So what do I care." She could be writing about a romance or the vagaries of pop stardom.

"Stay Awake" has one of her best lyric turns on a great bridge, "You think youíre the only one with a chemical imbalance." The melody of "Send Money" is like a Middle Eastern drone, finally delivered as chant: "Save yourself! Send money!" Hatfield says itís a retort to religious proselytizers who say, "Iíll pray for you," to whom sheís saying, "Look at yourself, and if you really want to help me, send money." But her double-tracked vocals and raspy guitar have an incantatory power that is in itself a prayer.

"I think that the few times that I felt happy, I didnít feel the need to make music," she tells me. "And I remember I was feeling kind of happy six months ago and I was thinking, you know, I could just be a girlfriend, I could sort of like hanging around and be a loving girlfriend, and I could learn how to cook and maybe have a baby, and then I caught myself, like, what was I thinking? That wouldnít be a satisfying life. I wouldnít be happy doing that because I still have these things that Iím struggling with and working out with my music."

When I suggest that she was in love when she was making the record, she says, "But there are no love songs on it, which is odd, because there are lots of them on all my other records. So I guess that shows that Iím still sort of flailing and trying to figure out what to do with myself, and the only thing that gives me any kind of feeling of being grounded consistently is music. I canít depend on anything as much as I can depend on music."

 

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Issue Date: August 12 - 18, 2005
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