“It’s better to make them wince than just have people snapping their fingers. The stuff we do is so pop and sing-alongy that we need the lyrics to sort of counter that.” That’s Juliana Hatfield, talking about some of the more blistering moments on the Blake Babies’ new album, the plangent Sunburn.
The Blake Babies are a rock ‘n’ roll trio who, as Hatfield implies, create confectionary melodies, jangly songs, and roaring banks of choruses, then just as efficiently undermine them with some pretty painful analyses on the subject of interpersonal relations. “You were trying to cop a feeling while I was trying to get away,” sings Hatfield on Sunburn’s lead track; and just a few songs later she’s in even rougher territory: “You / You’re pitiful when you beg / You / You’re pitiful when your hand is on my leg.” But Hatfield isn’t shrill or cruel or polemical; she switches characters effortlessly, lacerates herself as well, and time and time again comes back to love: “Over at the hospital / They will dress my wounds / But they won’t really heal until”–and here her falsetto reaches till it breaks under the strain–“they’re touched by you.” She’s one of the more interesting new songwriters in rock right now.
This is the band that has already suggested shooting as the logical response to polluters: “I’ll take my gun and both of my friends / We’ll make some righteous amends.” This, from the song “Cesspool” on the group’s last album, Earwig, was the thinking person’s rock lyric of 1989. What the Blake Babies are most interested in is the sexy appeal of the scary gesture–they get enraged, sorrowful, or happy, and follow the emotion wherever it leads. The best song on Sunburn is “Sanctify,” which was mostly written by drummer Freda Boner. It’s about a friend whose life was destroyed in an accident; Boner matter-of-factly and movingly contemplates blowing up buildings and setting fires as a means of bringing him back to consciousness. John Strohm, whose tasteful light touch on guitar is merely a setup for when he wants to make his point with pyrotechnics, calmly states his themes early on in “Sanctify” and then bites your head off at song’s end. And Hatfield does some of her best singing–whispering, hollering, and finally screaming.
The band is from Indiana by way of Boston: guitarist Strohm and drummer Boner, high school sweethearts in Bloomington, met Hatfield at the Berklee College of Music. (Hatfield just graduated with a degree in voice and composition.) Strohm once drummed with Lemonheads (head lemon Evan Dando used to be a de facto member of the Blake Babies as well); but he and Boner started the Blake Babies when they fell for Hatfield’s breathy, childlike voice. The Blake Babies were christened by Allen Ginsberg, whom the band asked for a name during a Q-and-A session at one of his lectures. The band released its first record, Nicely, Nicely, in early 1988, and then put out an EP, Slow Learner, on Billy Bragg’s Utility label in England. Earwig, their decorously arranged and deceptively engaging breakthrough, came last year.
The band, in rehearsals in Bloomington for their fall tour, worry that the new record isn’t tough enough. “Sometimes I think it’s too nice,” Hatfield says. This doesn’t seem to be a problem: for every lyrical gorgeosity–“In a Million Years” or “Out There”–there’s a darker, acidic set piece. Strohm’s first solo singing effort is “Girl in a Box” (Dando is the male voice on Earwig); the song was originally written as a joke, but its portrait of laconic cruelty has a disturbing edge. Another standout is Strohm’s “Train,” a methodical trashing of both “Mystery Train” and–get this–Modern English’s “I’ll Melt With You.” The Blake Babies set the mournful words of “Mystery Train” to yet another soaring, aching chorus and pull it off.
But Sunburn’s strongest voice is Hatfield’s, and she pushes the envelope even by Blake Babies standards. “I don’t necessarily agree with everything in a song like ‘I’m Not Your Mother,'” says Strohm dryly. “But Juliana is very lyrically honest. Everything we do is about weird tensions that exist; not every scenario Juliana creates is based on a specific incident, but they all come from her experience.” Sounds juicy.
Hatfield, for her part, worries more about sounding soft. “Sometimes I think I just sound pained or whimpering. But I don’t try to be blunt, just to be honest and not fake anything. Some things are female things, but the rest of it, like the sad stuff, men and women both can relate to that.”
The Blake Babies play Saturday night, opening for Firehose in an early show, beginning at 7:30 PM, at Cabaret Metro, 3730 N. Clark. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the door. Call 549-0203.