CD Review of How to Walk Away by Juliana Hatfield
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Kristen Hersh, Tanya Donnelly,
Liz Phair
Ye Olde Records
Juliana Hatfield:
How to Walk Away

Reviewed by Michael Fortes


f nothing else, one has to admire Juliana Hatfield’s tenacity. Over the course of two decades plus, she’s averaged an album a year, either as a solo act, with the Blake Babies, or with her Blake Babies offshoot trio, Some Girls. Then there’s the work she did with the Lemonheads -- and the peak of her success passed almost a decade and a half ago. She was never a platinum seller, but she’s always been passionate. She’s the kind of artist who, once she really hooks a fan, will keep him around forever.

It’s all of those fans who have carried Hatfield through the lean years. When she experimented with “the honor system” on her web site, selling demos and other vault recordings for whatever dollar amount her fans decided was fair to them (more than two years before Radiohead did the same with In Rainbows), the resulting cash flow helped to finance 2005’s raw, almost unhinged Made in China. Some new pay-what-you-want downloads appeared again last December, and – lo and behold – here’s another new album!

Her second full-length studio album, and fourth release overall (not counting the limited edition Blake Babies EP Epilogue) for her own Ye Old Records label, How to Walk Away is not quite like any of Hatfield’s previous records. She has rocked much, much harder (see Made in China, Only Everything, Total System Failure). She has also been more mellow (see Beautiful Creature). But what she hasn’t done so much in the past is play Sheryl Crow-ish, lightweight classic rock, which is exactly what “Just Lust” and “Now I’m Gone” are. 2004’s In Exile Deo may have been the first indication that Hatfield might have been, consciously or not, trying to encroach upon Sheryl’s usual territory, but the guitars on that album still had the biting Juliana crunch that we can usually expect from her records. However, unlike Ms. Crow, and unlike most of Hatfield’s own prior records, there’s evidence of weariness in her voice. The passion that marked her best vocal performances is subdued here, and it sticks out even more than the fact that producer Andy Chase has given Hatfield a sound that’s as studied and precise as his own female-fronted lite alt-pop band, Ivy.

Juliana Hatfield

In spite of the smoothness, some typically strong melodies and solid pop songs carry the record. “My Baby,” in particular, is quite possibly the catchiest song she’s ever recorded. Its “oh, my baby doesn’t love me anymore” chorus becomes instantly ingrained in the ol’ grey matter from the first play. It’s top-tier Juliana, and it’s begging for some young singer to cover it, someone who might be willing to smile a little more for the camera and earn Hatfield some extra props in the process.

Discerning ears might also quibble with the needless recycling of the key riff from “It Should’ve Been You,” off In Exile Deo, into the less musically interesting “This Lonely Love.” Sure, the Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler might be singing on it with her, but it could have been any other male baritone. Ditto for the bevy of other special guests (Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws and Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger, among others). Hatfield’s vision is so refined that no amount of window dressing can impose upon it.

Clearly, a lot of effort was expended here, and some strings pulled too (Paul McCartney producer David Kahne mixed “Shining On”). And yet, with a few exceptions, the end result falls just short of awesome. Hatfield is at her best either when she’s too down for the ground or bubbling over with passion. Here, she’s riding in the middle of a smooth, paved road, where the answer to the question “how to walk away?” is to get in the car and drive, but not too fast.

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