BY ELENI P. AUSTIN
The recent Presidential election was a shocking surprise to millions of Americans, (well, at least three million). Suddenly, nothing could be taken for granted. People who rarely talked politics became activists. The country was galvanized, protesting, marching and making their voices heard.
The creative community also responded in kind, poets, actors, writers and artists quickly spoke up. Even musicians whose work has always felt weirdly intimate and highly personal reacted with dismay when the least qualified, most bellicose candidate attained the highest office in the land. That’s what happened to Juliana Hatfield.
Juliana Hatfield was born in Wiscasset, Maine in 1967. She grew up in Duxbury, a suburb of Boston. Her father was a doctor who served in the Navy during Vietnam, her mother wrote for the Boston Globe. Along with her two brothers, Juliana had a typical suburban ‘70s childhood. She learned piano and guitar as a kid and played a cover band in high school called the Squids. She discovered Punk via the musical gateway drugs of the Velvet Underground and X.
While attending Berklee College of Music she met John Strohm and Freda Boner and they formed a band in 1986. They arrived at the name the Blake Babies after attending an Allen Ginsberg reading at Harvard University. One of the three raised their hand and asked him to name their nascent trio and he suggested the Blake Babies, as an homage to British poet William Blake.
The Blake Babies’ sound was the perfect synthesis of melodic Jangle-Pop and snotty acerbic lyrics. Juliana’s reedy, childlike vocals could yowl one minute and coo the next, people either loved it or hated it. They toured constantly, criss-crossing the country in a cramped van playing dingy clubs and sleeping on floors. Signed to the indie label, Mammoth, they released two Eps and two full-length records between 1987 and 1991.
Their music hit that sweet spot between Post-Punk and AM Pop. This versatility allowed them to cover both Iggy Pop and the Grass Roots with equal aplomb. Although they were asked to open for Nirvana on their Nevermind tour, the trio was ready to move on. John and Freda formed Antenna, and Juliana intended to embark on a solo career.
She briefly put her solo plans on hold and joined another Boston trio, the Lemonheads. Led by Evan Dando, (the most beautiful front-man on the Alternative/College Rock scene), and named for a candy that is sweet on the inside and sour on the outside. Their sound progressed from Punky Thrash to an amalgam of Post-Punk/Power Pop Country Rock/Metal. Only Evan Dando could get away with covering songs by Charles Manson and Suzanne Vega.
When the original bass player quit, Juliana stepped in and helped record the Lemonheads’ most successful and accessible record, It’s A Shame about Ray. In the midst of that, she also managed to write and record her solo debut, Hey Babe. Both were released in 1992, receiving glowing reviews and respectable sales.
Although Juliana (and the Lemonheads) were firmly established within the Post-Punk/College Rock community, the advent of Grunge boosted their exposure exponentially. Juliana’s videos went into rotation on MTV, and she was featured on the “120 Minutes” program. She was profiled in magazines, gracing the covers of “Spin” and “Sassy.” Although people consistently assumed she and Evan were a couple, she became a bit of a cause celebre when midway through her ‘20s, she declared that she was still a virgin.
The following year saw the formation of the Juliana Hatfield Three with drummer Todd Phillips and bassist Dean Fisher. Their Become What You Are album yielded two hit singles, “My Sister” and “Spin The Bottle,” both went to #1 on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart.
Juliana returned to solo status and began a wildly prolific streak, releasing Only Everything in 1995 and Bed in 1998. At the turn of the century she reconvened the Blake Babies for a one-off album, God Bless The Blake Babies, and a tour. After that, the albums came at a pretty quick clip, two in 2000, the acoustic Beautiful Creature and the more rockin’ Juliana’s Pony: Total System Failure.
2004 saw the release of In Exile Deo, followed by Made In China in 2005. Three years later How To Walk Away arrived. A whirlwind of activity commenced between 2010 and 2013, each year she wrote and recorded a new album, Peace & Love, There’s Always Another Girl, Juliana Hatfield and Wild Animals, respectively.
Also within that decade she reunited with ex-Blake Baby Freda Love (ne’ Boner) and formed Some Girls, they recorded Feel It in 2003 and Crushing Love in 2006. The Juliana Three reconvened in 2014 for a tour and subsequent album, 2015’s Whatever, My Love. She even found time to collaborate with the elusive former Replacements front-man, Paul Westerberg. As the I Don’t Cares, the pair co-wrote and recorded Wild Stabs, which arrived at the beginning of 2016.
Juliana was planning to take a well-deserved break, but then the impossible occurred, a blustery misogynist man-baby became the President of the United States. So she quickly wrote and recorded her 13th solo album, Pussycat, playing all the instruments herself. She has stated in interviews that this is a very personal album for her, and shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as an “anti-Trump” record, but as an “anti-hatred, anti-lies and pro-America record.”
The album opens tentatively with the mid-tempo “I Wanna Be Your Disease.” The listener is greeted by a chunky back-beat, downstroke guitar riffs which are quickly supplanted by a fusillade of fuzzy power chords as the song takes shape. The melody and instrumentation are never brash or pugnacious, but there is no mistaking Juliana’s demeanor as she trains her sights on 45; “You had every advantage and took it all for granted, silencing anyone who questioned your worth, maybe now you’ll listen/I wanna be your disease, draw it out painfully, plenty of time for the truth to sink in, that this is one deal you can’t win.”
Three tracks address the blowback from November’s election. On “Impossible Song” grind-y guitars stutter and quake over a gelatinous rhythm and na-na-na backing vocals. Juliana admits “these contentious times bring out the worst in me, I don’t like what I’ve become.” Still, she tries to find common ground, asking “what if we tried to get along? Sing an impossible song, figure it out later on.”
On “Good Enough For Me,” she flips the script, walking a mile in a Trump supporter’s shoes. Serpentine riffs slither around a rock steady beat. The lyrics attempt to justify voting for an inept blowhard; “He can’t spell very well, but he knows how to read, and he has never killed anyone personally/He exaggerates and whines, but hey, I’m no prize, I’m no genius, I tend to believe his lies.” Basically, the nation’s diminished expectations have been met.
The lush melodicism of “You’re Breaking My Heart” belies the lyrics’ bitter crush of defeat. Layered Girl-Group vocals lattice over Juliana’s patented sunshine-sour Jangle-Pop. Buzzy guitar pyrotechnics almost take the sting out of lyrics like “there are no more heroes, and no limit to how low we go.”
Not all of her hostility is aimed at the Cheeto-hued Electoral huckster. “When You’re A Star” is a bitter excoriation of the erstwhile “Dr. Huxtable,” Bill Cosby. Blistery guitar riffs collide with feral bass lines and a menacing tilt-a-whirl rhythm as Juliana focuses her vitriol on America’s Dad, his alleged sexual assaults, and the lack of consequence. “Do what you want,” she taunts over squalling feedback, ”whatever the fuck you want to do, when you’re a star they let you/Do what you want buy the silence of your many tragic victims, do what you want, you’re protected by your sycophants and henchmen.”
On “Sex Machine” spacey synths are overpowered by strafing riff-age, search and destroy bass fills and a slingshot beat. Smart-ass lyrics have a go at a misogynist culture that treats women like receptacles. Tongue (not so) firmly in cheek, Juliana offers to build an apparatus to handle the, um, overflow. “Love it hate it, demean and debase it, sober or wasted/Control and manipulate it pound and berate it, if you’re frustrated kick it and break it, you can replace it.”
The bubblegum crunch melody and pile-driving beat on “Touch You Again,” nearly camouflages this acrid denunciation of domestic violence. Here she insists “under your clothes and inside your head that information is privileged, yeah/You can give it away if you ever want to, but it’s not something he can take from you, yeah.” Despite the dour message, the song feels like vintage Blake Babies.
Juliana manages to temper her outrage on two tracks, “Sunny Somewhere” and “I Wonder Why.” The former is breezy and easy-going. Fluttery rhythm guitar, thrumming bass and a tick-tock beat add ballast to an almost laid-back request for a sunshiny respite far from bitter winter weather.
The latter time-travels to a “Brady Bunch” tinged childhood filled with avocado and peach décor, and ever-present baby blue corduroys. All that’s missing is a bong, shag carpet, some Lemony Pepsi Light and some beanbag chairs. Shards of feedback, sludge-y rhythms and mellotron accents underscore the oddly comforting recollection.
The album’s remaining five tracks zero in on The Donald and his Island Of Misfit Toys. Jittery guitars propel “Kellyanne” a caustic ode to the skeletal spokesmodel who coined the phrase “alternative facts.” As the tempo accelerates with caffeinated precision, Juliana wonders “do you love, do you feel, did you used to be real/Is there any blood beneath your steely mask?” Then she proceeds to fantasize about burning her in effigy.
“Heartless” splits the difference between swirly ‘60s Psychdelia and skittish Punk. Farfisa organ notes wash over a metronomic meter and growly guitars. The lyrics question the real estate mogul’s sincerity; “How can you care if you have no empathy, how can you judge if you have no authority/How can you tell the truth without honesty, and how can you apologize if you aren’t sorry?”
On “Short-Fingered Man” and “Rhinoceros,” she delivers a one-two punch to the softest, smallest part of the New York native’s um, psyche. “Short…” gets right to the stubby point, lyrics reveal Donald isn’t really the “Closer” he purports to be, “Short fingered man can’t get her off.” Clangorous guitars and spectral synths can’t deflect from the truth; “he’s easily hurt, he’s very insecure you have to talk to him gently, like a little girl in a long dress shirt/you can’t find his hands, now they’re lost in the pockets of his pants.”
Meanwhile, “Rhinoceros” cuts to the quick. Ominous power chords give way to hopscotching rhythm guitar, waspish bass and a walloping backbeat. The lyrics offer a vivid glimpse behind East Wing bedroom doors; “He climbs on top in the dark and pushes your legs apart/you grit your teeth and try not to breathe, because he reeks of rotting meat.” Wait, it gets worse; “He rolls off of you and lumbers across the room/You go to the gilded bidet to wash the shit away…Give it up for the Rhinoceros, guess who’s getting fucked by the Rhinoceros: America!”
The album closes with “Everything Is Forgiven.” A defiant Cri de Coeur powered by scratchy guitars riffs and a scorching solo, Juliana regrets nothing. “God will forgive me for all the things in my head, that’s what they said/That I can get away with anything, if I just repent.” But she doesn’t: “God will forgive me for my anger and bloody, vengeful violence, God forgive me please for all the things I’m gonna do to him, ‘cause I’m not gonna die a victim.” It’s an audacious end to a powerful and provocative record.
Juliana produced this album herself, Pete Caldes played drums, but she played the rest. Remarkably, her girlish voice remains unchanged.
Pussycat could have been a sour diatribe, but Juliana manages to imbue the record with tart melodies, trenchant lyrics and a lot of uncomfortable truths. Happily, the album isn’t non-stop sturm und drang. She leavened her political vitriol with hints of humor and a glimmer of hope for the future.
America was sold a bill of goods by a corpulent carnival huckster. Pussycat is the first salvo in the artistic revolution.