Music

With a New Covers Project, Juliana Hatfield Sets Her Sights on the Police

Photo: Stacee Sledge / Courtesy of Think Press

Continuing her take on artist-themed covers albums, Juliana Hatfield takes a stab at the Police songbook, with unique, marvelous results.

Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police
Juliana Hatfield

American Laundromat

15 November 2019

Covers projects can be a dicey proposition. For established artists, it could be a sign of creative bankruptcy or just plain laziness. Often it's simply a love letter from artist to artist, acknowledging the influence and (hopefully) paying solid, earnest tribute. The key to a successful tribute album is to shed new light on the songs while remaining faithful to the spirit of the original. That is where Weezer got it so painfully wrong on their surprise covers album, The Teal Album, which contains ten note-for-note covers of songs the whole world knows by heart. That's not a cover, that's karaoke. What's the point?

Juliana Hatfield understands how to make a good covers album. Last year, her Olivia Newton-John tribute album won several accolades. While she didn't stray too far from the original arrangements, she helped shed light on the songbook of an artist who, despite a string of successful singles, has remained largely underrated. With her latest covers album, Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police, Hatfield is tackling a completely different type of artist and is surpassing the Newton-John project by rearranging the songs in an often striking fashion. Sting, Andy Summers, and Stewart Copeland made up a band that was not necessarily known for being covered ad nauseum, and that's odd because hearing their songs performed by another artist only confirms the quality of these songs.

What's interesting about the song selection is that Hatfield doesn't go out of her way to only cover deep cuts or b-sides. Sure, there are plenty of those here, but she's also covering "Roxanne", "Every Breath You Take", and other popular singles. It seems as if the only requirement for making the tracklist is if she likes the song. Many of the songs have an insular, new wave sheen that pays a sort of sideways tribute to the band. The Police came out of the age of punk but bolstered their sound through their combined love of more exotic styles such as jazz and reggae. Hatfield takes the songs and brings them back to the simpler, more emotionally direct punk/new wave sounds of the Police's peers. It's almost as if the material has come full circle.

Hatfield has simplified and deconstructed the songs, playing most of the instruments herself – Chris Anzalone of Roomful of Blues plays drums on a few songs, and Ed Valauskas of the Gravel Pit played about half of the bass parts. "In the Police, each player's style was so distinctive, accomplished, and unique that I didn't even attempt to match any of it," she said in the album's press materials. "For anyone to try and play drums like Stewart Copeland would be a thankless, pointless task that is bound to fail." Are you listening, Rivers Cuomo?

Kicking off the collection is Hatfield's swaggering take on "Can't Stand Losing You", full of noisy guitars and sneering harmonies. The emotional detachment of this version is similar to the original – it's hard to put a smiley face on Sting's ode to heartbreak-inspired suicide. It's good to see lesser-known songs get equal exposure here. The bouncy ska of "Canary in a Coalmine" gets a lively rendering. "Hungry for You (J'Aurais Toujours Faim De Toi)", a minor-key power pop gem from Ghost in the Machine, is given new life as the French lyrics, which came off as a bit pretentious in Sting's hands, have the air of an obscure European synthpop single.

A refreshing aspect of the album is the variety with which Hatfield treats the better-known songs. The reggae stylings of "Roxanne" are transformed into a slow dirge, with distorted guitar chords slashing the air. Hatfield's version of "Every Breath You Take", however, isn't too much of a departure from the original; she speeds it up a little, and her vocals, particularly in the dramatic bridge, lift the song to previously undiscovered heights. The fiery urgency of "Next to You" – the first song on the first Police album – is dialed down and turned into a more sedate slice of guitar-crunch post-punk. A different arrangement, but still intensely catchy.

Hatfield has made a point on this album to choose songs that seem to resonate in the current world climate. "Rehumanize Yourself", "Landlord", and "Murder By Numbers" are examples of songs that touch on issues of classism, abuse of power, and the ugly tenets of nationalism. As a result, that trio of songs is infused with a clear-cut punk delivery, which is very much in line with the Police's versions, except for "Murder By Numbers", which was originally created in a cool, detached, jazzy style. In Hatfield's hands, it becomes one of the more visceral tracks on the album.

As Juliana Hatfield has demonstrated, the Police songbook is wide and varied enough to be open to endless interpretation. As she has demonstrated with this album as well as the Olivia Newton-John project, she's a musician who is dedicated to paying tribute to the music of her youth and finding new and interesting ways to present it. One can only wonder what her next covers project – assuming there is one – will entail.

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