The Song Has a Will of its Own: Juliana Hatfield and the Art of Covering Yourself

You don’t have to look too deep into this blog to realize that I’m a big fan of Juliana Hatfield. She’s the only artist who has two songs among the 22 I’ve blogged about, plus she got a mention in my “10 Songs that Made Me Happy in 2014” list, through her band Minor Alps.

Lately, she’s been even more at the top of my mind because she got her old band, the Juliana Hatfield Three, back together for the recently-released Whatever, My Love. Which I will now say is brilliant – BUT, I had to take a bit of a journey to get there. And know this: as much as I love her music, I can be objective enough to say that not all of her work is brilliant, at least in my eyes. Nobody can be exclusively brilliant, anyway.

When you’re a fan of an artist for over 20 years, you start to see patterns. And one of Hatfield’s that is quite prominent on this new album is the re-purposing, in one way or another, of songs she previously recorded. Prior to hearing Whatever, My Love, I had already heard 10 of the 12 songs. A good chunk of that has to do with being a fan. A few years back she released a bunch of her demos, on a pay-what-you-want basis, and five of them appeared there. If you’re no more than a casual fan, those songs would seem new. After all, those demo versions were never meant as “official” releases. They can’t really be considered part of the Juliana Hatfield “canon.”

But there are other ways she goes about these re-recordings. Sometimes it’s a straight-up cover of herself. Sometimes it’s a similar song with different lyrics, kind of along the lines of what Guns N’ Roses did with “Don’t Cry” on their two Use Your Illusion albums. Sometimes it’s just tinkering. And other times the changes are fairly radical.

Let’s start with the first:

Boiled Potato,” Blake Babies, Innocence and Experience (1993) vs. “Feed Me,” Juliana Hatfield, I See You CD Single (1992)

Hatfield began her career in the late 80s with a Boston band called Blake Babies and this was a strange case of an up-tempo romp addressed to a potato morphing into a slow acoustic dirge addressed to her “baby” (not the “goo goo” kind). The original Blake Babies version was actually a demo that appeared on their post-breakup compilation album, Innocence and Experience. Her solo version only appeared as a b-side on the CD single (“I See You”) of a track from her solo debut, Hey Babe. (Time-travelly note: Even though “Boiled Potato” was released a year after “Feed Me,” it was recorded first – but fans hadn’t yet heard “Boiled Potato” when they heard “Feed Me” unless the Blake Babies had played it live at some point.)

Winner: “Feed Me.” While “Boiled Potato” is fun, with the silly title and the whole notion of singing to a potato (metaphorical or not), “Feed Me,” with its pained lyrics about an eating disorder and “just a girl and her acoustic guitar” arrangement, packs a real emotional punch.

“Get Over Me,” God’s Foot Demos (2014) vs. “Get Off,” Please Do Not Disturb (1997)*

Here’s another time-travel situation. “Get Over Me” was actually recorded back in ’96, for an album called God’s Foot, which was recorded but never released due to record-label drama. It still sits locked away in a vault somewhere and Hatfield tragically has no access to it. It’s a lost album. However, demo versions of some of the songs from that album have existed on tapes traded by fans and on the internet for years. Of course, those were not the versions of these songs she wanted people to hear and any sequencing of the songs wasn’t necessarily what she had in mind for the actual album. Nevertheless, just a few months ago she released demo versions of the God’s Foot songs as a reward for fans who pledged toward the making of Whatever, My Love on PledgeMusic. Finally, we were able to hear that album at least to some small degree the way she wanted us to hear it. But almost 20 years later. Meanwhile, she recorded the Please Do Not Disturb EP in the wake of all that record-label drama and included an alternate version of “Get Over Me” with different lyrics in the form of “Get Off.”

Winner: Second time’s a charm again. Musically, “Get Off” is a little bit heavier and it replaces GOM’s droning keyboards with a slick guitar lick in the intro and throughout. Lyrically, just a few tiny tweaks to the lyrics made it much darker. Rather than just asking someone to get over her, she’s asking them to get off of her because she’s being crushed and can’t breathe – which implies the emotional “get over me” thing while adding the physical imagery and intensity of being crushed by someone.

It Should’ve Been You,” In Exile Deo (2004) vs. “This Lonely Love,” How to Walk Away (2008)

This was the best mind game she ever played on her fans. The first version begins with a very distinctive riff marked by the interplay between guitar and piano. The second version begins the exact same way! So the first time you heard “This Lonely Love,” your expectations were for the riff to be followed by the slow-tempo verse with long, sustained notes and only guitar and piano – as it works in “It Should’ve Been You.” In that version, there are no drums until about halfway through the song. But “This Lonely Love” charges forward after the opening riff, drums pounding, and a completely different melody establishes a completely different groove – rather than the long, flowing notes of the “It Should’ve Been You” verse, you get more staccato notes in the new verse: on the beat in the first half of a line, then off the beat in the last half of a line. Very cool.

Winner: Again, I hand it to the second version. It’s so much more fun. And I never even mentioned the chorus, which is massively ear-wormy, the vocals on which she shares with Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs.

Now here are the five songs that also appear on the new Juliana Hatfield Three album:

“If Only We Were Dogs” – Originally on Sittin’ in a Tree, Juliana Hatfield & Frank Smith (2007)

In the mid-2000s, Hatfield started her own record label, Ye Olde Records. The band Frank Smith is the only artist, other than Hatfield, to record under that label. And to introduce her fans to Frank Smith, she recorded the Sittin’ in a Tree EP with them, featuring this fun track that means exactly what the title says. Maybe we’d be happier if we were dogs and didn’t have to deal with all the human shit. Hell, we wouldn’t even have to deal with our own shit because the humans would pick it up for us. Or else we’d just eat it. Right, Wrigley (my poo-eating dog)? Now, for the new JH3 album, she’s re-recorded it – and even filmed an awesome video where, yup, she plays herself as a dog doing doggy things, which, as a noted animal lover and dog owner, she mimics to perfection.

Winner: The new one. Yes, there’s a pattern here. And before I started writing, I didn’t really anticipate it. Interesting. The original is good in its own right. Frank Smith gives it a different instrumentation, more acoustic, there’s a banjo in there. But the new version is just more Juliana Hatfieldy: Grungy guitar, drums and bass. To the original’s credit, though, there’s a fun build to the song. While it begins a little more acoustically, quietly, Hatfield’s guitar gets grungier as it moves along, until it culminates in an explosion of feedback at the end – which is easily my favourite way to end a song.

“Parking Lots,” “Push Pin” and “Dog on a Chain”Originally on Wild Animals (2013)

Winner: In each case, honestly, it’s the new version. These originals feel a little bit like demos. Demos for very good songs, but demos nonetheless. After all, they were recorded by Hatfield on her own, at home, playing all the instruments. They’re all predominantly her, often doubling her vocals, and her acoustic guitar, with some bass and sometimes drum machine thrown in. Over her career, she’s done some amazing things with mostly her and an acoustic guitar – just look at “Feed Me” (above) or check out my post on “Make it Home.” But these songs just clearly work better with a full band. I think “Push Pin” is the strongest song of the three, so it still shines through pretty well on Wild Animals. But it works even better with that wonderfully nagging, high-pitched electric guitar part on Whatever, My Love that emphasizes the beautifully irritating sentiment of a push pin being stuck in your cranium.

I Don’t Know What to Do With My Hands” – Originally on Get There, Minor Alps (2013)

No matter how you record it (and here’s the JH3 version), this is one of my favourite songs of the last year and a half. I say as much in that 2014 recap list. That chorus? Come on.

Winner: Finally, the nod goes to the original. I just love the way her voice meshes together with Matthew Caws’. And then there’s the end of the song, which when I first heard it I wasn’t sure about, but now I love it. Their voices modulate up to this beautifully dissonant place, a place that sounds musically wrong, and then comes back down to where it started. That’s what the song is all about: awkwardness; ultimately, finding some comfort with and being okay with solitude and awkwardness. Which is something I know a little bit about. I’m trying, anyway (to be okay with it).

When I first heard the new album, I’ll be honest, I was a little disappointed hearing all these songs I’d heard before. But after many listens, I realize she’s done an amazing thing here: she’s topped herself. It’s actually an interesting artistic challenge. How often do you hear novelists or directors say they wish they could change one or two things in their work? Or do things over again altogether? With Whatever, My Love, Hatfield has done just that. In fact, top to bottom, I’d say this is her best album since Bed in the late 90s.

I’ll close with her own thoughts on the issue of “covering yourself,” from a recent interview with Salon.com:

“I think about the American Songbook. I don’t include myself, but there’s all these classic songs. [And] there’s songs that multiple artists record throughout the years. And I feel like any song, if it’s a good song, it should be able to be recorded over, even by the same artist. If it’s more than just a crass ploy to bring in more money; I think it’s totally valid to re-do a song – if you’re doing it for creative reasons, personal curiosity reasons.”

“Some songs… sometimes they just resist, and you can’t nail them. It’s a weird thing when you try so hard to get something right, and the song will say, ‘No, you can’t.’ It’s like the song has a will of its own.”

 

* If I haven’t included a link to the song/video, that means that unfortunately I couldn’t find one. Most links are to YouTube, but others are to Spotify, so you’ll need an account to hear those.

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2 thoughts on “The Song Has a Will of its Own: Juliana Hatfield and the Art of Covering Yourself

  1. I agree… but what do you think about “I’m Shy” and “Ordinary Guy”? I like the new recordings… but not so much the changed lyrics… I liked “my boyfriend’s a freak” vs “my boyfriend’s mean” (I think shooting up in front of me is more freaky than mean). Also replacing Ecstacy with MDMA seems a little silly… I liked the original demo lyric better but… whatevs 🙂

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    1. Thanks for reading, Johnny! I hear you and totally agree on the “freak/mean” thing. In general, though, my feeling about the demos is that they’re unfinished songs, they weren’t intended for fans’ ears when they were recorded. That definitely changed when she (kindly) offered them to us, but I still tend to view them for what they were originally intended to be (which is why I didn’t write about them in depth)… although, it could be said that they “became what they are.” 😉

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