Olivia Newton-John was my first celebrity crush. When “Physical” was a big hit in 1981 – a Jazzercise anthem – I was just eight years old. It’s probably one of the first pure pop songs I really loved. It was also the first time I was really aware of her and I remember thinking, “Wow, that’s a pretty lady.” And it made me feel kind of good, but simultaneously embarrassed. As a kid, I was always embarrassed or shy around women I thought were pretty. I certainly wouldn’t tell anyone I thought anyone was pretty, because “ew, girls.” Like most little boys, I thought I was supposed to think girls were gross. (You know, all this makes me wonder if my little 10-year-old dudes have had any crushes, celebrity or otherwise. They’re definitely still in the “ew, girls” phase, so it’s not even worth asking them.)
But other than “Physical” and Grease, I didn’t have a huge awareness of her music. I knew she was famous and Australian, but that’s about it. She was the kind of singer to young me where I was maybe aware of some of her other songs, but at the time didn’t realize it was her.
All this is to say that when I first heard one of my favourite artists, Juliana Hatfield, was going to release an entire album of ONJ covers, I wasn’t sure what to think. I looked at the track list and I recognized five songs. I was grateful for more Juliana Hatfield music, but not sure if I’d like the songs. ONJ seemed like syrupy pop music from an era just slightly before I started to enjoy syrupy pop music; music I somehow couldn’t quite relate to. But I do enjoy some good syrupy pop music on occasion, and I had faith in Juliana’s ability to inject herself into a cover, thanks to her 2012 self-titled album of covers from artists ranging from Foo Fighters to Electric Light Orchestra. Plus, she seemed really passionate about this project, and that kind of passion can only be a good thing. So I was skeptical, but open to being pleasantly surprised.
Well, I love it. So there you go. If I didn’t know it was a covers album, I’d think it was a new album of Juliana Hatfield originals. She turned these syrupy pop songs into pop-rock songs, with a touch of pathos. Gorgeous melodies with a rock and roll edge. Okay, not all of the songs are super edgy. Some are a little shinier and cleaner, along the lines of something you might find on her Beautiful Creature album (especially a song like “Don’t Stop Believin’”). Still, it all sounds like her. But why should I be surprised? That’s exactly what she does, has always done. She truly injected herself into these songs.
Not surprisingly, “Physical” (check out the video below) is the standout for me. Yes, it’s the song I knew best going in. But I love how she took the jaunty little rhythm part that opens ONJ’s version and continues through the verse, and cranked it up into a big, distorted guitar riff. But over top of that, her vocals remained faithfully syrupy, at least in the verses. It’s a cool contrast. And very indicative of the pop-rock sensibilities she’s displayed for her entire career. But at the same time, those vocals – especially in the chorus – are more urgent and less playful than ONJ’s. And then she goes and unleashes what has instantly become one of my all-time favourite Juliana Hatfield guitar solos: overdriven, hummable and aggressive.
The biggest surprise on the album for me is the song that immediately follows “Physical”: “Totally Hot.” This was a new one for me. I wasn’t at all familiar with the original, yet I fell in love with its laid-back rock riffage. It took a week for me to get around to giving the original a listen. It’s this odd little faux-funk track with clucky guitars and horn accents here and there. Juliana slowed it down, chunked up the guitars and brought more of a sly “come hither” vibe to her vocals, compared to ONJ’s more aggressive, “unabashedly telling it like it is” take. For ONJ, “My love is so hot, totally hot,” was a loud and proud declaration. For Juliana, that line is a quietly confident, sultry invitation. Declaration versus invitation. I like that.
And I like this album – a lot – from top to bottom. It gives Juliana’s fans a chance to indulge in her passion, from her perspective; it’s a declaration of her love for ONJ. And it gives non- fans or casual fans a new way in. It’s a declaration to her fans and an invitation to new ones.