By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
You don't see the phrase "simultaneous two new album release" every day, and with good reason. For one thing, it's as tricky to pull off as it is to say.
1991: Nobody can convince Axl Rose to pare down a pair of new Guns N' Roses albums, each CD with more than 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 GNF'nR 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.
The Deathray Davies open
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.
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.
Like Young, 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 CD in her collection has copped and saturated modern rock radio with) carries over into her conversational tone, and it's no rock-and-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 Zoë/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," Hatfield 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 without a Triple A 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 1995's Only Everything, which placed songs like "Dumb Fun" next to weightier concerns like "Simplicity Is Beautiful."