Track by Track – Weird by Juliana Hatfield
In the very early nineties, The Lemonheads were coming to the attention of the general public in the UK with the release of It’s a Shame About Ray. The camera-friendly face of their lead singer beamed from newsagent shelves for months on end but one of the keys to their sound on that particular record was the thin, youthful backing vocals from their tiny looking bassist. Little known to most people this side of the cultural pond, she actually had been part of the brilliant Blake Babies who had previously employed Evan Dando (he of the camera-friendly visage) on bass.
Having done her stint in the Lemonheads following Blake Babies breakup, Hatfield released a solo album, Hey Babe, before releasing 1993’s Become What You Are under the guise of The Juliana Hatfield Three (the other two being Todd Phillips & Dean Fisher – fond switchers of instruments throughout gigs).
That album cemented Hatfield’s place in the public consciousness (quite rightly – it’s a bedroom song-writer’s blueprint) and she seemed to be everywhere. ‘My Sister’ was on MTV’s heavy rotation, ‘Spin the Bottle’ was on the soundtrack to Reality Bites and Hatfield even appeared on a monumental Christmas special of My So Called Life opposite a teenage duo of Claire Danes and Jared Leto. If you haven’t seen the particular episode, it was surreally dark for its time and Juliana plays a (spoiler – redacted) who (spoiler – redacted) but it turns out all along she was (SPOILER – REDACTED).
26 years later, and Juliana has just released her 17th solo album. The Juliana Hatfield Three reformed in 2015 and released the sweetly jaggy Whatever, My Love and, since then, Juliana has been releasing new stuff with the regularity and work ethic of a musical Bertha (it was a big green factory machine in a stop motion animation – google it, kids).
2017’s Pussycat was Hatfield’s most political record to date and a direct reaction to the dawning era of President Trump. 2018 saw her release an album of Olivia Newton-John covers which is 50+ minutes of emotional beauty. Her version of ‘I Honestly Love You’ will break any vaguely operational heart and I can make a hearty pub debate case for it being the album of last year.
On first listen, Weird ties itself to tried and tested ground and I was left longing for the record to take slightly more risks – go down more slightly leftfield paths and experiment a bit more. On further listens, though, the songs start to connect and, well, I’m glad she didn’t try to release a Grime or Crabcore crossover.
First track ‘Staying In’ treads familiar sonic ground – two contrasting guitars (one nearly clean, one quietly fuzzy) usher in a shuffle of a verse but the chorus really opens out the song’s rhythm. “I’m staying in, my hair’s not right, And if I go out, Somebody might take me for a functioning human being” is a far more hummable line than it looks written down. Thematically, it tucks the listener straight in to Weird’s recurring mood of comfortable solitude.
‘It’s So Weird’ is a real grower. The arrangement is understated with economic fantasy piano notes highlighting the quieter sections – the verses are catchier than the chorus which is something of a recurring personal motif for Hatfield (her biggest ever single didn’t have a chorus at all).
Juliana plays all instruments except (most of the) drums on the record but I’m a sucker for her under-rated guitar playing – various guitars, rigs and pedals are used but the trademark trebly sound with slightly off-centre note placement is so very definitely her. She shreds at times but, worry not, she never strays into the territory of the derivative pentatonic “jobby sniff” axe-wielder.
‘Sugar’ is a skipping, ultra-treble-y song that ties a fairly optimistic melody to world weary lyrics. The production across the whole album is extremely polished and ‘Sugar’ is mixed to stand out. As the songs have grown on me with repeat listens, so has the production. I had thought the whole thing slightly over-compressed first time through. Nothing dominates or ruins the mix but the underlying dirt in some of the instruments felt like it could be slightly more in the listener’s face. However, there is more going on in the mix than you might notice first time round – it’s pretty skilfully textured.
‘Everything’s For Sale’ starts with a start-stop guitar riff being answered by a synth but the whole band coming in takes the song into an unexpectedly full and fluid journey. Lyrically, it’s one of those list songs where rattling off the names of objects creates its own associations. I can’t help picking out the “edible pants” line but, frankly, I think that’s more related to hunger than an emotional attachment to pants.
Then comes the glorious grind of bar room guitar that is ‘All Right, Yeah’. Easily the sultriest thing on the whole record, it manages to purr throughout and the refrain will have you gently doing one of those circular air punches before side A ends with ‘Broken Doll’. A song which could have come straight from 1995’s Only Everything. The riff is a molten blues-y exclamation and the repetitive chorus will have you joining in before your first listen is over.
‘Receiver’ starts with and builds around an almost staccato guitar riff – the last minute of the song is probably its most thrilling as organs cascade around said riff and the guitar gets gradually growlier.
Lead single, complete with trippy video, ‘Lost Ship’ is a real high point. There’s a definite Sonic Youth feel to the swampy collection of guitars driving the verses. Thematically, the song is an extension of the old trope of staring out at sea wishing to be taken far away – the extension is that she wishes to escape (or return) to space. The solo is a crunchy Godsend.
Probably the most forgettable track here, ‘Paid to Lie’ develops from a basic riff up to string-soaked ending. The last two tracks, ‘No Meaning’ and ‘Do It To Music’ are a perfect duo to end on – ‘No Meaning’ has an emotive guitar lead fighting with the vocal melody while Juliana sings “Oh why do you do it?” making every syllable sound like a heartbreak. ‘Do It To Music’ could be an anthem/manifesto written by a 20 year old and, it’s at this point I realised that I’ve been listening to this young sounding voice all these years and now, with its owner now in her fifties, it sounds as vital as it always has done.