The sophomore release from Juliana Hatfield's all-female side project, a winner combining edge with sweetness.
Some Girls is a trio of female pop-rockers that is, inevitably, dominated by Juliana Hatfield. Crushing Love is their unpretentious and terrific second album. This is the kind of pop music -- quirky and witty but also melodic and accessible -- that deserves some of the record sales that are routinely earned by Jessica Simpson or Christina Aguilera. That's not going to happen, but can you blame me for rooting for great songs played and sung with plainspoken ease?
Juliana Hatfield can be a divisive and divided figure. Some people find her little-girl-voice and la-la-ooooh choruses to be cloying; others hear a bad girl attitude in it all and love the sweet 'n' sour combination. And her career -- which started with The Blake Babies (along with Some Girls drummer Freda Love) and reached a commercial peak when one of her songs "hit" and was featured in the movie Reality Bites -- seems to move between sugary pop gems (In Exile Deo from 2004) and rebellious squeals of feedback (Made in China from 2005). Some Girls is a project dominated by the sunny version of Ms. Hatfield, though it is not without its shadows.
Some of the pleasure and leveling of Juliana's temper is surely due to the punchy-pop drumming of Ms. Love and the light touch coloration of Heidi Gluck's voice and glistening guitars and keyboards. While Ms. Hatfield's solo-career bands have recently emphasized her punkier side, Some Girls is a tight group but one shot-through with jangle-y sunshine. With all the songs -- whether written by Hatfield, Love, Gluck or someone else -- dominated by the Juliana Formula of whispery pop singing and guitar-hook melodies, this feels like the best kind of collaboration. The strengths of Ms. Hatfield's collaborators give her just what she's missing on her own: middle ground.
This album is keenly aware of tradeoffs. The Hatfield-penned "Rock or Pop?" puts it clearly enough. It starts with a Stones-y guitar riff, then asks: "Are you writing for an audience or are you writing for yourself? Very willing to go straight to hell? Ooooh, rock or pop? Choooooose pop or rock." Here, the sound is usually pure pop pleasure, but the lyrics rarely let you (or the musicians) off the hook. "I don't want you to clean it up. I like it if it's kind of fucked up. You're so uptight, you can't relax -- you've got to get to the chorus fast."
Thankfully, Some Girls writes tasty verses as well as choruses. On Ms. Gluck's "Live Alone", the melody and chords move with Beatle-esque surprise well before the tambourine-and-steel-guitar-driven chorus. Heidi's voice is soft and breathy like Juliana's but also different enough to provide George Harrison-style relief. And this is hardly the only place on the album where you might be thinking Fab Four. Juliana's "Poor Man's You" addresses a lover thusly: "I wish I could tell you with a better song how much I love you / ... This song is a poor man's 'Love Me Do', and I am a poor man's you." Which sums up the Some Girls / Juliana Hatfield ethic perfectly -- Hey, I'm not much, but then again have you noticed how brilliantly I just put myself down? And so the songs are often tales of heartbreak that make you desperately want to beg all three of the Some Girls for a date.
Part of what makes Crushing Love work so well is how the careful arrangements are kept from seeming fussy by the nearly lo-fi recording sound. On the devilishly catchy "Hooray for L.A.", for example, the tune is given a meticulous arrangement including a prominent synth bass line, a simple and repetitive piano figure, harmonies on the out-chorus, and some added percussion elements. But the guitar and drum mixes sound essentially live and dirty, undercutting any sense that the tune may be fussy. "Social Control" finds use for a ringing little keyboard figure on the chorus, which turns into a Rickenbacker-ish guitar line the next time around, and then a combination on the last chorus. It's a great touch, but nothing else about the tune is glossy or slick. So when Juliana sings about being in a bar against her will and how a guy "spilled his beer in my cleavage / So I slapped him in the face", well, the whole thing sounds like it probably really happened to her in a crappy bar.
Crushing Love comes with a "bonus" DVD containing a sloppy and fun home movie of the Girls in the studio and on tour. It's a throwaway thing and something you may only watch once, but it underlines the appeal and genuine quality of the band. Even when their harmony singing is sweet and delicately lovely, Some Girls remains a modest garage rock band with just three musicians traveling through the low-end clubs of Columbus, Philly, Boston and the like. Audience are small, the rooms are dingy, their hair is mussed, and their stage clothes look no different than what they wear when they are asking directions from the band van. Ms. Hatfield -- thin and shy and still little girl beautiful at nearly 40 -- looms over the microphone with her whispery voice and then turns to her amp and wrings a hell of feedback from her Gibson SG. This is the same Lilith Fair star who did a cameo part on the TV show My So-Called Life and famously proclaimed herself still a virgin in her mid-to-late twenties?
But that is the fun and fascination of Juliana Hatfield and of Some Girls. Tough-sweet women making tough-sweet music. It seems simple and complex at the same time. It's the music, I suppose, that real people would make if they didn't have to sell the music to a billion people just to pay the rent. If Some Girls make it all look too easy, I think that's part of the complexity too. This modest little album is actually an amazing achievement.
Now, do your best not to spill your beer in Juliana's cleavage and, if asked "Pop or Rock?" answer: both. Just like Some Girls.