Hatfield's the Real McCoy
You don't see the "Simultaneous Two New Album Release" every day, and with good reason.
1991: Nobody can convince Axl Rose to pare down a pair of new Guns N' Roses albums, each CD with over 75 minutes of music -- the length of two White Album sets minus all the Ringo songs. A more apt name for Use Your Illusion would've been Spend Your Nest Egg, since it depletes the troubled group's song supply and GNR never releases another original album.
1992: Newly ensconced Japanese executives at Sony prevail upon Bruce Springsteen to make a smaller and more economically efficient vehicle out of Human Touch and Lucky Town. The abbreviated Lucky Touch never materializes, and in six weeks, both Boss albums disappear completely from the Top 100.
2000: Juliana Hatfield finally gets the simultaneous-two-new-album ordeal right. The key is releasing separate volumes that are stylistic opposites in every way, like warring Hatfields and McCoys. Beautiful Creature finds Hatfield programming herself into what a lite rock station oughta be -- nothing but edgy love songs about a moody, drug-addicted boyfriend. The second album, Total System Failure, is credited to Hatfield's latest trio incarnation, Juliana's Pony, and finds our sweet-voiced siren advocating road rage, using human beings as trophies, enslaving little white boys for menial domestic chores and ridiculing people for wearing leather pants. All of it delivered over a bed of distortion and heavy-metal fumes, a two-fer that's a rare artistic achievement -- something akin to Neil Young releasing Comes a Time and Ragged Glory on the same day.
And the Young analogy is no stretch, either, despite some ill-informed critics who've labeled her sound "bubble grunge." Hatfield's underrated guitar playing has always run the gamut from dusky elegance to blistering white noise, but within the enforced parameters of these two albums, her diversity comes more to the forefront. Hatfield readily appreciates the Young comparison -- something she rarely hears. "I love Crazy Horse, and Neil Young is one of my favorite guitar players," she gushes, via phone from a tour stop just outside of Cleveland.
And like ol' Neil, Hatfield leaves herself completely open in the vulnerable lyric department, even if she's thoroughly reticent when it comes to talking about her personal life or just about anything else. Her oft-copied little-girl-lost vocals (which every "alterna-chick" singer with a Blake Babies collection has copped and saturated modern rock radio with) carries over into her conversational tone, and it's no rock 'n' roll affectation. Hatfield genuinely sounds like the girl who's just spilled something really messy on the floor and doesn't know where the paper towels are.
"I wasn't thinking of any precedent," says Hatfield of the potentially problematic two-album idea. "It just seemed like the right thing to do from the beginning. I did it on my own dime, brought it to Zoe/Rounder and said, "This is what I've done. You wanna put it out?' And they said, "Yeah.' I wasn't gonna even negotiate with anyone about putting out just one album. I was gonna put out two records no matter what. Even if I had to put them out myself."
Hatfield was also opposed to housing the two CDs under a single title because she conceived each separately and thought of them as far too disparate to be packaged together. You'll note that neither volume makes any marketing cross-reference to the other. There are no "If you love Beautiful Creature, you'll love Juliana's Pony" blurbs on Total System Failure's cover or vice versa.
Initially, there was just one album, which she worked on for a solid year.
"I finished Beautiful Creature and I felt somewhat unfulfilled," she admits. "I felt like this other side of me needed to be released. Some of the songs I left off the album weren't intense enough to be what I wanted. They weren't hard enough."
Among those unreleased tracks were some she recorded in Tucson with Giant Sand's Howe Gelb. "I did some stuff for his record, and he recorded some stuff for mine. But I don't know if anything's going to happen with those recordings," she says with genuine uncertainty. "They weren't quite right."
Not wanting to be stranded in the marketplace with just an AAA card in her wallet, she rallied against her own album's strictly adult-alternative tendencies with a vengeance.
"I just kind of conceptualized the Pony thing," she says. "I wanted it to have a certain vibe and a certain sound. There are actually certain rules, like "no love songs,' which was a reaction to Beautiful Creature, which is full of them. And every song had to have a guitar solo. Preferably two. Or a really long one. The whole album was pretty much written in the studio. I don't think we spent more than two weeks on it. Recording and everything."
Hatfield needed the irreverence of Total System Failure to balance things out. Beautiful Creature is indeed a beautiful album, but it lacks the humorous bite of past Hatfield efforts like Only Everything, which placed songs like "Dumb Fun" next to weightier concerns like "Simplicity Is Beautiful."
On Creature's "Somebody Is Waiting for Me," Hatfield declares she's found a love that is "real and pure and true." The flipside to that sentiment colors the bulk of Total System Failure, best captured on "Let's Get Married" and its might-as-well-schlep-to-the-altar lyric: "Let's get married and rot away/Torture the bridesmaids. Make them wear lime green." (For the record, Hatfield has experienced such torture firsthand. "I have been a bridesmaid. Fortunately, the outfits were pretty tame. They were cream and black, but I still wouldn't wear them out in public, though.")
Fans will simply have to flip between the two to get that balance of love and vengeance. Those unwilling to go along with either overriding mood for long are best advised to put both CDs in the player and hit scramble mode. Hatfield confesses to not having made a similar sonic omelet yet, though her live shows do jump from one album to the other. And while Juliana's Pony is a group effort in which she co-wrote four songs with Ponyman and former Weezer bassist Mikey Walsh, the current combo Hatfield is touring with is an entirely different band.
"Live, we seem to be leaning more towards the Beautiful Creature material, but if the crowd is in the right kind of mood and if the club is more of a rock vibe, we'll break out more of the Pony stuff," she says. "We're not doing very much old stuff. About five or six songs."
Apparently, she has no trouble with her schizophrenic set list. "It's all just about what mood I'm in," she says. "When I'm singing a song like "Slow Motion,' it makes total sense 'cause that's the mood I'm in, and when I'm singing a song called "Metal Fume Fever,' it makes perfect sense at the time because that's the mood I'm in. It doesn't seem weird because both of them seem real to me. People are complex. I'm just showing my complexity."
In a unique move, both albums are also housed together in a special-edition boxed set that lists for $24.95, significantly cheaper than the 30-something bucks it costs to purchase the CDs individually. In addition, the deluxe box contains a third bonus CD that includes a different version of "When You Loved Me" and a cover of the Police's "Every Breath You Take."
"And," adds Hatfield with apparent disinterest, "there's stuff for the computer, screen saver, notes from me, pictures, stupid stuff like that." For someone who named an album Total System Failure, it's a tad surprising that Hatfield has zero interest in computers or the Internet. "I think I'm the only person who doesn't have a Web site," she says, though there are at least a dozen sites dedicated to her music.
Equally low on the list of priorities is getting the kind of breakout hit that will catapult her out of cult status. "Commercially? I can't really see it happening with either one, but you never know," she shrugs. "It's really up to the people."
When the push behind "modern rock" was in full swing, Hatfield scored two Top 100 hits with "Spin the Bottle" (from the soundtrack to Reality Bites) and "Universal Heart-Beat." Those were different times for commercial radio and unfortunately short-lived; her label, Atlantic, dropped her in 1996 when alternative became a dirty word and they claimed they didn't hear any hits on God's Foot, her proposed follow-up to Only Everything.
"God's Foot is more produced, more arranged, there's some strings. A lot of different keyboards. It's really pretty and poppy. I don't know what else to say about it," she sighs.
That record is still languishing in Atlantic's vaults and will likely never see release unless Hatfield somehow manages to rack up elephant-dollar sales in the future. In the case of her latest endeavor, operating outside the confines of a major label has clearly proved to be a benefit. It's doubtful Atlantic would've ever encouraged putting out a pair of diametrically opposed collections at the same time. Zoe/Rounder, on the other hand, seems to relish the challenge of promoting two different records to two different radio formats.
"What seems to be happening is some of the adult stations are playing "Someone Is Waiting For Me,' like the more slightly progressive but more commercial adult AAA or AC stations," Hatfield explains. "The record company might work "My Protégé' to rock radio."
The latter song comes dangerously close to approximating Zeppelin's "Moby Dick" riff but puts in some hilarious lyrical twists that the male-dominated listeners of hard-rock radio will probably have a difficult time with: "If you want/she'll act like you turn her on/She knows just what to say/There's money everywhere so laugh at their stupid jokes."
Audiences accustomed to the Cookie Monster vocal stylings of Slipknot and Type O Negative will probably punch the station button the minute they hear Hatfield's Josie and the Pussycats croon. Which is probably why the opening track "Metal Fume Fever" is blanketed with 15 seconds of "White Thrash" and a testosteroned vocal groan that could be Hatfield with a harmonizer, for all we know.
"Well," she says kindly before getting in the last word. "I don't want to give away all my secrets."
Juliana Hatfield is scheduled to perform on Wednesday, June 14, at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe, with Go Big Casino and Jamal Ruhe. Showtime is 9 p.m.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.