Sunday, July 30, 2017

Juliana Hatfield - Become What You Are and Beyond

Juliana Hatfield Three

Back in the year 2000, on a typical Florida summer day, it was pouring oceans worth of water from the skies to the point that I was potentially stuck at work due to flooding. The people on the next shift couldn't come in and we clearly couldn't leave. Roads were being closed all over town and we were on the verge of going to emergency mode at work. But there were two things that made me consider risking the dangerous drive home in my Chevy Cavalier through waters that went more than half way up the door. One, fuck that job. I really hated it. But more importantly, my wife and I had plans to drive up to Orlando early the next morning to see Juliana Hatfield. So off I went and although everyone at work had some version of "see you back here in a few minutes" I somehow made it, driving by all kinds of stalled and floating(?) cars on my way home. So what I'm saying is Juliana Hatfield is important to me and it's beyond overdue for me to put her in this stupid blog.

I wish I had a more original intro to her music, but I first heard her like I guess most people my age did, when "My Sister" and "Spin the Bottle" were out. I got her album with The Juliana Hatfield Three, Become What You Are based on those songs, but back then, it quickly wound up being one of my most played albums. There was just something about it that went well beyond most of what was being pushed as "Alternative" at the time. There was something very real behind it all even if I couldn't put my finger on it. I used to read a lot of Spin and Rolling Stone back then and although I can't remember much of what I read, I do remember a lot being made of her "little girl voice" which, ok, but so what? Her songwriting and her honest delivery more than made up for any incorrectly perceived lack of vocal power or range. Also, her voice was not a gimmick although I'm sure if we broke down many artists that came after, we couldn't say the same. She wasn't in some stupid made up box where young girls in the music business were "supposed to" be.

Become What You Are

The more I read about her, from attending the Berklee College of Music to her criticisms of popular culture and her ways of describing how socially awkward she was, the more I wanted to hear. So, little by little (because I had no Spotify or money to go all in) I bought singles, her previous solo album and with albums with her previous band, The Blake Babies. I continued to buy and love her new albums, but still, I kept coming back to Become What You Are. To this day, if I think of the 90s, this album, this artist and her particular style, her very specific sense of melody (which if I knew more about music theory I could break down, but that I know I could identify in a blind test type situation) is probably what first comes to mind for me. Even before Nirvana, Pearl Jam, grunge in general or anything else, her dynamics, her honest pop sensibility, that somehow carries a subtext of sincere real life angst no matter how cheery the song might seem to be, are what I most connected with then and now.

Over the years, because no matter how much I am actively listening to music new and old, I did sort of lose track of her work at times. But, thanks to Spotify, this has changed and in the last few weeks in particular I've been revisiting and catching up. She put out an album this year, Pussycat, which is exactly the kind of thing I expected more artists to put out this year as it is a protest of the Alt President and all his bullshit. But more than that, it's about our culture of misogyny. It's an appropriately angry and bitingly sarcastic work. I still have to live with that album some more before I can break it down but I think it's a contender and recommend it.


But also, in the past few months, I've been going back to Become What You Are a lot more. One thing that stuck out to me recently is how beautifully produced this album is and my mission now is to get this on vinyl, which is going to cost me a bit since it's somewhat rare to find but I digress. It's balanced so damn well and has that atmosphere of the room thing I love in music. Todd Phillips' drums in particular sound crisp and clean, but overall it just has a sense of space that I don't think I ever realized was there before. Not consciously, anyway. And The Three, with Dean Fischer on bass are in perfect sync. One of the tightest bands of the 90s. The album was produced by Scott Litt who is most famous for producing R.E.M.s most famous albums. So, it all makes sense. But beyond the production, the song writing is just perfection. As a student of music, both academically and as a fan, Juliana Hatfield is also one of the best song writers of our generation and criminally underrated as such. I could go on forever about songs like "Little Pieces," "President Garfield," "Dame With a Rod" or even "My Sister," which no matter how much it was played, is a brilliant song. I could dig into the rest of her catalog and find countless perfect songs. Instead I'll focus on one song, the one song I think that I related to and continue to relate to most off this album, "For The Birds."

The brief bass intro and the chords that follow, with the swinging drum beat are exactly what I think of when I think of a Hatfield song. And then she tells this simple story in the first verse of finding a baby bird laying on the street, dying, and it clearly has an effect on her. The melody of the chorus somehow uplifts with melancholy, in perfect marriage to the lyrics, "I'm trying, I'm trying, I'm trying, but I can't get away from the thought, it's dying, it's dying, it's dying, and it's something that I couldn't stop, you're lying, you're lying, you're lying, if you say it's gonna make it cause I know that it's not." The "I'm trying" is desperate but affirming because she's not giving up, but she might. It's at the edge of hope and for me it was always about taking some comfort in being a human who is still able to care enough to feel this way as method to dealing with the feeling of hopelessness. As the song builds, each verse and each chorus makes what she's trying to deal with bigger than the bird, but somehow still relevant to the fact that this bird is dying, that we all are dying and that it's all inevitable. The weight of life, the shit that humans do, is draining and that's why seeing this innocent bird dying, with no recourse, is so overwhelming in that moment. It's not an "everything's gonna be ok" song, but it's cathartic. Anyway, that's where I was at the time when I first heard this song. That's where I was for a long time and played the fuck out of this song, taking comfort in it. And I'm not sure another artist really has ever captured this in a more simple direct way that lives as metaphor and literal at the same time. Her delivery is heartfelt and authentic, too. She has clearly been there and I am glad she is able to channel it this way. This is a perfect song.

Her lyrics, her musicianship, her outspokenness make Juliana Hatfield one of the artists that I can truly credit with reinforcing my feminist tendencies in my 20s. To the point that she reinforced my humanist tendencies overall as well. And Become What You Are is only the tip of that. Her EP Please Do Not Disturb and the album Bed were also things I played heavily. That concert I went to back in 2000 was in support of her albums Beautiful Creature and the heavier, Total System Failure, both released simultaneously. I actually found one tiny write up of that show, including a couple of pictures here. Sadly, she didn't play "For The Birds." Since then she's continued to work as a solo artist and with several bands, not all of which I have heard in depth. So, Spotify here I come. Maybe she'll play Florida again soon, hopefully not during another monsoon, but I'd drive through another flood to see her.


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