Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Dust Off Those Grooves (Chapter Twenty) Bed by Juliana Hatfield

One of the most ferocious, demanding and inspiring albums of the nineties is approaching its tenth anniversary so now seemed like a pretty good time to pay tribute to it. Of all of the “alternative” artists that came out of the late eighties and early nineties few were more talented or more special than Juliana Hatfield, and while Bed might not be her best album it very well might be her most important.
By the mid nineties the whole ‘American Alternative Movement’ had seen its day and had been successfully buried by the mind numbingly brilliant music that was coming out of Britain from a number of bands such as Suede, Elastica, Oasis, Blur, Massive Attack, Portishead and the list goes on and on.
The American scene seemed to implode in the mid nineties and the undeniably excited feel the ‘grunge’ movement had briefly inspired seemed over with. Some people died, some quit, some burned out and most just faded away. For a short while it seemed that Juliana Hatfield might go the way of the latter as her 1995 offering, Only Eveything, had felt like a bit of a let down after her majestic work with The Blake Babies and then her first two masterful solo platters. However there were rumblings that something was happening with her and when it became public that her record company was refusing to release a challenging double album called God’s Foot, it felt like Juliana Hatfield might not join those who were gently fading away at an alarming rate.
The first clear sign that Juliana was in for the long hall was the release of the incredible Please Do Not Disturb EP in 1997. Angry, disappointed and all together brilliant, the independently released Please Do Not Disturb showed her at the top of her game lyrically and gave notice also that she had developed into one of the most distinctive guitar players of the nineties. Songs like "Sellout" and "Get Off" had the same kind of middle finger waving viciousness that Lou Reed’s great Arista recordings had in the late seventies. Like Reed in that period or Elvis Costello post Armed Forces, Hatfield sounded like she was pushed up against a wall but instead of crumbling, she only got stronger.
I remember buying Bed the day it hit record stores and I must admit that I was nervous about it. The period between 95 and 98 had brought so many disappointing American releases from artists that just a few years before had seemed so vibrant, that I was worried that the same curse would strike Hatfield. I didn’t worry long though…
From the piercing feedback drenched opening "Down On Me" (one of the great opening tracks from the nineties) to the moving closing "Let’s Blow It All", Bed is one of the most consistent and well rounded albums of Hatfield’s now twenty plus year career…a glorious tribute to a really original talent who has time and time again refused to back down or conform to expectations.
Punctuated by some gloriously sloppy and brutal electric lead guitar by Juliana and some of the most biting lyrics of her career, Bed is the kind of devil may care rock album hardly anyone has the guts to make anymore. Raw Power length with just ten perfectly selected and sequenced songs, Bed finds Hatfield justifiably angry at a music community that had neglected her and many of her peers. It’s a moving experience and one I have been trying to introduce to people since it first came out nearly a decade ago.

The highlights of the album are plentiful. "Down On Me" is a jaw dropping wall shaking paranoid masterpiece with Hatfield pinning lines like “The tall buildings are walls, I’m walking around and can’t get out”…it’s "Tokyo Storm Warning" for a decade that really needed it…
The album continues with the seemingly self critical (something Hatfield is an absolute master of, there has never been anything whiny about her music) "I Want to Want You" to the crunchy "Swan Song", which is a sly and caustic take on John Mellancamp’s mega eighties hit "Jack And Diane". Even better is the adulterous tale "Sneaking Around" (which contains a soaring guitar solo in the middle that is just spine tingling), which again has Juliana seemingly channeling the likes of Elvis Costello with her lines concerning “The only evidence I have, dirty pictures in my bag.” If the sound of Bed is more This Years Model and Blood and Chocolate, it’s lyrical obsessions of lies and deceit is definitely Imperial Bedroom.
The chilling "Backseat", with has some of the most distinctive multi part harmonies that she has ever delivered, is followed by the searing "Live It Up", a song which has Juliana believably promising the object of her wrath that they “are going down”.
One of Juliana’s strangest and most complex compositions follows and it is a doozy. "You Are the Camera" is a near surreal masterpiece that has her referencing Man Ray and delivering terrifying lines “I only write in my diary, what I want you to read”. The songs final moments are among the most eerie of Hatfield’s career with her proclamation of “I disappear when you’re not here” sounding like a weird elegy for a movement perhaps only really existed in the minds of people who needed a movement.
The album’s slowest and most poignant track is up next and I must admit that "Running Out" is one of my favorites, with the line “you’re running out of faith” being one that I really connected with strongly back in 1989, a very difficult year mentally and spiritually for me.
The album concludes with "Bad Day" and "Let’s Blow It All", both of which sound defiantly relaxed…almost as if you can hear Hatfield accepting her role as an artist gloriously ‘left of the dial’. If the lines, “Nobody can stop us from blowing it all, it’s mine and, besides, they’ve never cared” doesn’t sum up what must have been going through many an American musicians heads in the late nineties as they were being routinely dropped from their record deals and public consciousness I don’t know what does.

The Japanese version of Bed is worth seeking out as it contains a couple of killer bonus tracks as well as the Please Do Not Disturb EP. Bed would appear in 1998 in America to mixed reviews and less than stellar sales, but the people who were lucky enough to have bought were served by a strong declaration of independence by Hatfield who, truth be told, was THE post Replacements American artist that I really wanted to see survive.
Bed would mark a creative rebirth for Juliana, whose albums since have all been the works of a master. Sincere, honest, fierce and powerful, the works of Juliana Hatfield in the past ten years have only been equaled by the equally brilliant Aimee Mann as far as American female artists go…the fact that so few people have heard works like Bed, Total System Failure, Beautiful Creature, In Exile Deo and Made In China is really tragic. I suspect her new album, How To Walk Away (due on June 10th) will continue Juliana’s major winning streak and I hope people open there ears to it…
Bed is currently out of print, as are many of the best albums (brilliant platters ranging from Fetchin Bones' Bad Pumpkin to Paul Westerberg's Suicaine Gratification) from the past couple of decades. It can be found pretty cheaply at any number of online vendors and I highly recommend it for any who haven’t experienced it.

For more info on Juliana, please visit her official site here and this incredible fan site.
She has also recently started a very exciting and ambitious blog that inspired me finally getting this post together and will be on my daily visit list.


Rogue Spy 007 said...

I'll admit that I was like a lot of other people who got hooked on alternative music in the early 90's. By the mid-90's, many of those artists were putting out crappy albums if they were still around. Plus I started to move off into more gothic and industrial music at this time. I don't think I bought a new album by alternative artists after that. It's been great to be reminded of wonderful artists like Juliana Hatfield. I'll have to see if I can find this album. You've inspired me to check it out. Great blog post.

J.D. said...

Another great post on Juliana Hatfield, my friend! I am eagerly anticipating her new LP and many thanks for posting that link to her blog. Can't wait to check it out.

She is one of the rare musicians of whom I will buy their album sight unseen (unheard?) just because I know, chances are, I'm going to like it. Unlike a lot of others, she has yet to let me down.

If I had to pick a track off BED that I like the most (hard to do) I guess it would "Sneaking Around" which has got great lyrics and a fantastic groove to it. "Backseat" would probably be a close second. I love the melancholic vibe.

Thanks for revisiting this album. I think I will have to load up a few of Juliana's albums in my iPod and get back into her stuff again.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks so much guys...I got a lot of positive emails about this and am thrilled to hear from other people who admire Juliana, an artist who has never gotten enough credit.