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19th Favorite: Hey Babe, by Juliana Hatfield

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Hey Babe. Juliana Hatfield.
1992, Mammoth Records. Producer: Gary Smith.
Purchased, 1992.

IN A NUTSHELL: Hey Babe, by Juliana Hatfield, is a straightforward 90s guitar-pop gem. Hatfield writes infectious melodies and the band behind her makes them sound alive and urgent. Her voice can strain at times, but it always suits the song, so I don’t mind. The lyrics are sharp, and offer a new perspective on relationships and culture. Get out your cardigan sweater and retro-Bobby Brady shirt, and re-live the early 90s with Juliana!

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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As I begin to discuss album number 19 in my list of 100 favorite albums, and considering the pace with which I am completing each post, I’ve realized I should be at Number 1 sometime around 2022. Since this process is dragging out so long, I thought it might be a good time to review the process and discuss how I got here.

It has also dawned on me that as we reach the Top Twenty, there could be some rather upset readers who begin to notice that A) their favorite record won’t be on my list; and B) their second-favorite record is ranked far lower than some lousy record by some dumb artist they never even heard of. This could cause the feeling among readers that “I just wasted 15 years reading this blog to find out this dude has shitty taste in music!!” (I will refund all the fees I’ve collected from any reader who makes this claim.)

Sometimes I reach an album and even I think to myself: “Really?? This record is this good???” But invariably, after I begin listening again, I realize: “Yes! This album IS THIS GOOD!!” Only once have I had a moment of doubt.

So once again, let’s review the process:

1) I listened to all* my CDs. This probably sounds more impressive than it really is. I know folks who have thousands, even tens-of-thousands, of all types of records. I only own a few hundred. I listened to them mainly in the car as I commuted to work. I only listened to CDs, so albums I have as computer files, or old cassettes, aren’t part of the pool. Sadly, I haven’t owned a turntable in a long time, in particular I don’t have one in my car, so all my vinyl records are ineligible, too.

* – I decided that Compilation Albums and Beatles Albums were ineligible. Compilation albums because these typically cherry-pick an artist’s best songs, which would be unfair; Beatles Albums because it’s me cherry-picking the 10 Best Albums in history ever, and so wouldn’t be fair.

2) I took notes and rated the albums 1 to 5 stars. This rating was based on my feelings after listening to the album. It wasn’t based on a considered, in-depth, song-by-song critique that analysed both the artist’s place in history and the importance of the release in the ever-expanding network of contemporary artistic expression; nor was it based on a fixed list of characteristics that excellent records must possess. It was simply based on how much I felt the old “I-fucking-love-this-record!!!” feeling while I listened.

3) I sorted by number of stars. Five stars on top, one-to-less-than-one-stars on the bottom. This provided what one would think was an objective-as-possible list of records ranked by “I-fucking-love-this-record!!!“-ness. However …

4) I accounted for my own self-knowledge. You see, the point of this endeavor was NOT to have an objective list of “best” albums, but to have a subjective list of “favorite” albums. So I had to balance out the “I-fucking-love-this-record!!!“-ness with some “I-have-a-soft-spot-for-this-record”-ness and some “Yeah-it’s-great-but-it-doesn’t-really-speak-to-me”-ness. This meant that some truly amazing records that I’d rarely listened to, like Sticky Fingers, ranked lower than some, well, less-excellent records to which I had strong historical attachments. Like Yes’s 90125.

This is because I wanted to write about why I love the records I love. I couldn’t say much about Sticky Fingers beyond, “Wow, I should’ve listened to this record more often!” But I could discuss 90125 for hours. (Sadly). (There was one record, though, that I hadn’t listened to much that catapulted into the Top 20 because of just how amazing it is, and that record is XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX, by XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX.)

5) The list was set and could not change. This post explains why.

I don’t look at the list, except during a very specific time period: after I publish a post. When Number 20 went up a while back, I pulled out my list, crossed Ghost in the Machine off, and looked to see what was Number 19: Hey Babe, by Juliana Hatfield.

I can’t say I was shocked, as I’ve raved about this record ever since it came out, and I knew it was on my list. But when I considered some of the hugely popular records, important artists and highly critically-praised albums that I’ve already had on my list, I wasn’t sure this little indie release by this rather-unknown, never-hugely-popular singer/songwriter would really hold up as a Top Twenty Pick. But the thing is: I love all the records on this list so much that at any given moment in time, the 98th record might be number 4 and the 20th record might be too low to make the list. In my mind, there isn’t really a whole lot to separate any of the records on my list. Instead of calling them numbers 100 to 1, I should really count them down as numbers 1.099 to number 1. That would be a more accurate appraisal of my relative consideration for all these records. So if you’re truly aghast that, say, Axis: Bold as Love and OK Computer are ranked so much lower than Hey, Babe, think of them as record numbers 1.049, 1.057 and 1.018, respectively, instead of 50, 58 and 19.

But numbers-schmumbers … I am NOT aghast by the state of my list! Hey, Babe is an excellent record! I first heard about Juliana Hatfield when her band The Blake Babies had a song or two playing on the old MTV show 120 Minutes. I thought they were ‘eh.’ I was living alone in a little cabin in the woods when 120 Minutes played the first single from Hey Babe, and I was hooked immediately. Kurt Loder did a little MTV News segment on her, and I went out and got the record. I’ve loved it ever since. It was never a huge hit, but it’s gotten some critical love upon its recent re-release.

The single that got me hooked is the first song on the album, “Everybody Loves Me But You.”

I have a history of liking acts with unusual vocalists. The Hold Steady, Sleater-Kinney, Rush … all these bands have somewhat divisive singers. Juliana Hatfield has a girlish, soft voice that strains to hit some notes, but I appreciate the punk spirit of singing the songs regardless. Her voice doesn’t at all hinder the terrific melodies she writes. This song starts with a cool guitar riff, and a descending bass line at about 5 seconds, then the main riff starts. She spits out the lyrics quickly. I’ve heard people criticize her lyrics as having too much “poor-little-girl-won’t-a-boy-save-me” emphasis. But I think this criticism unfair (and perhaps a bit sexist) – I’m a man, and I very-much relate to the first-person narrator that tells most of her stories. For me, most of the lyrics aren’t gendered. Anyone who’s ever felt the heartache of knowing one’s targeted “right person” never feels the same way for you can understand “Everybody Loves Me But You.” And her voice does some really cool things, like at 1:48 when she puts a flourish on the word “tired.” It’s a cool, catchy pop song with a cowbell breakdown at 2:30.

The album has a definite 90s, alternative sound, with distortion and furious strumming carrying the bulk of the guitar sounds. There is very little “soloing.” And the Pixies-ish loud-quiet-loud sound pervades. It’s all put to good use on “No Outlet.”

I like the guitar doodles behind the soft part, around 0:30, and how the song deftly transitions between loud and quiet. Around 1:40 there is a solo of sorts, just some long, held notes, until the song drags to a near stop at 2:40, then moves to a really nice bridge. It’s a really cool song with different parts and lyrics describing (I think) the frustration and regret (which men feel too) of physical connections made without the emotions that make them worthwhile. The riff heavy “Quit” is another dip into 90s motifs, including suicidal lyrics, that doesn’t work as well for me.

The acoustic song “Ugly” was ahead of its time, an introspective, woman-centered song a few years before Lilith Fair. It got a lot of publicity back in the day for its direct approach to the topic of women’s self-image. Then it got a little backlash for being too meek. To me, its just an expression by an artist of one thing she’s felt. And these expressions of self are part of what I love about the record.

For example, “Lost and Saved,” one of my favorite tracks for its music and for its lyrics that capture the craziness of falling for someone you shouldn’t.

It’s got cool dueling rhythm guitar coming from each speaker, and the drums, by Todd Phillips, really move the song ahead. Hatfield’s thin voice strains, but fits perfectly. What’s best about the song, though, is the chorus that swoops in (1:19), features great “ooo’s” and then falls into a creative guitar solo at 1:38 from guitarist Mike Leahy. It’s a catchy, 90s guitar pop song that I sing along with every time. In my mind the song is always paired with its follow-up on the record, “I See You.” It’s a song about obsession, and – like “Lost and Saved” – also features 90s folk-rocker John Wesley Harding on backing vocals.

It has another catchy melody that I find myself singing throughout the day when I hear it. I like the lyrics of this song: “I’m not a loser, I’m just lonely” is a phrase that many people knocked around by their heart’s status can relate to. Most of the songs on the record discuss non-existent, or really bad, relationships. The song “Forever Baby” tells the story of a woman who has settled for a way-less-than-ideal man. The lyrics are Elvis Costello-esque, with lines like “I hold him like a loaded gun/I know he might go off with anyone,” and “I see a long lost home in his eyes/He sees a nice hotel in mine.”

The relationship songs are good, but my favorites on the album are less direct, or, in the case of “Nirvana,” directly about a different kind of relationship.

It’s about Hatfield’s love of the band Nirvana, and it brilliantly expresses the effect that music can have on a listener. The song begins, appropriately enough, with feedback, and continues with crunchy chords from guitarist Clay Tarver. It’s an aggressive song that has a sweetly melodic chorus (1:13) much in the vein of many Nirvana songs. The harmonies are terrific, and I’ve always loved the lyrics “Here comes the song I love so much/makes me wanna go fuck shit up.” It’s the feeling I had when I heard Nirvana. And the bridge lyrics (2:20), about the effect of music, are also just right: “When the sound goes around/and goes in your ear/You can do anything/you have no fear!” It’s a favorite song of mine, and apparently Kurt Cobain liked it, too.

It’s a 90s album full of 90s sounds, 90s themes and 90s guest artists. Head Lemonhead, and fellow New Englander, Evan Dando appears on many songs, including The Lights, a slow meditation on lost love. But the best guest appearance is by Minutemen bassist, fIREHOSE leader, and all around terrific guy, Mike Watt on the song “Get Off Your Knees.”

Hatfield plays bass on all the songs except this one, which she turned over to Watt. And the bass really makes the song. It’s another of my favorites on the record, almost entirely because of the bass. It’s a fine, quick song, about something, obviously, but it’s all about the bass. Plus it serves as a nice introduction to the closing song on the album, the ambitious “No Answer.”

It starts off a bit searching, and unsure, but by 0:45 the sweet guitar by Mike Leahy brings it all back to a nice “doo-doo-doo” chorus. There’s a lingering guitar interlude which is allowed to build slowly to the second verse. At 2:25 Hatfield again salutes the effect a good song can have, singing “I jump in the car/turn the music on/I’m gonna be gone/Don’t know how long.” It’s another lost-love song, that after another sweet chorus breaks into an extended outro that cries out for a long car ride. It’s a terrific album closer.

Hey Babe is a totally early-90s record. In the early 90s I was unsure, changing … a young adult figuring things out and never thinking I’d one day be consumed with counting down favorite records and sharing my connections to them. I didn’t know what I was doing back then, and I don’t really know much more nowadays. I do know I have a list of records I’m counting down, and this one’s on the list. And now that I’m done writing about it I wonder: Shouldn’t it really have been higher on my list??

Track Listing:
“Everybody Loves Me But You”
“Lost and Saved”
“I See You”
“The Lights”
“Nirvana”
“Forever Baby”
“Ugly”
“No Outlet”
“Quit”
“Get Off Your Knees”
“No Answer”

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