Juliana Hatfield Sings Oliva Newton John (American Laundromat)
The good and bad news for those coming to this album with scepticism or anticipating a laugh is that Juliana Hatfield – who emerged from the po-faced indie scene of the 1990s and veered close to but never actually broached the mainstream membrane – is that this album is not an exercise in irony, nor in radical reinvention.
Hatfield has no interest in taking the piss: she grew up a fan of Olivia Newton-John, for a start, but just as importantly does not look back at that fandom with squeamishness or wry bemusement. Nor is she interested in remaking these songs into some new form that disguises their origins or shows the “cleverness” of a modern production approach or incongruous style.
Being able to sing most of these songs in their original key, Hatfield, reinforces the sense of history repeating sometimes with arrangements which deviate little from the original version. Xanadu – of which more later – could be the better known version sans those backing vocals; Magic comes in the same tempo, almost the same guitar solo but possibly a little less heat; Please Mr Please is a pigeon pair with the recording Hatfield grew up with bar a keyboard tone.
Which will raise a perfectly reasonable question in the minds of many for whom ONJ is the epitome of flaccid pop, late arriving pallid sexuality, and limp movie musicals (and hello here to my wife!): why would I want to dip into that well again? The obvious answer is you wouldn’t want to, and you should move on right now.
For the rest of us who may have enjoyed a dip or three into that well over the years – count me in there and put me in the tiny crowd which says “Totally Hot is the best ONJ album, Please Mr Please is a sad country gem, but don’t get me started on how dire a song Physical is” – the most interesting aspect of Hatfield’s approach here is that while she comes respectfully, there is something of the passion of the fan here. More passion to be honest than ONJ was known to display.
I think you can feel a little more teen loss in Hopelessly Devoted To You, catch a bit more young adult ennui in Make A Move On Me which comes across more like Hatfield’s Blake Babies backing her than the studio workers back in the ‘70s, and (though I concede this may be projecting) there is a hint of more desire in Have You Never Been Mellow.
Speaking of desire, the songs from the one album where ONJ could genuinely be accused of raising the ambient temperature in the studio and in our ears – A Little More Love and Totally Hot – show the benefits of going a bit further than respect.
While in A Little More Love that is mostly the tad grungier guitars that give the song extra earthiness – an idea taken further in the revved up country rock take on Dancin’ Round And Round - Totally Hot is among the most altered songs here, punching up as a bit of a bar band number its dance now a kind of shoulder roll. It isn’t necessarily better, but it does shake things up and succeeds where the more radical redo of I Honestly Love You fails.
The thing is though that I Honestly Love You fails not so much because of the new, more clatter/more disjointed/more effort approach but because it is a weak song, one of her more vapid numbers. Which brings us to Xanadu.
It had to be here I suppose: Hatfield clearly loves it, it would be about ONJ’s best known track, and after all this time it probably has shifted in many people’s affections from tolerated into something maybe ruefully, or even unashamedly enjoyed.
But then and now it is a confection which would aspire to having even the weight of a pop meringue and bears the scarlet mark of its creator. (Yes, it’s true I am not now, nor have I ever been a Jeff Lynne fan. Got a problem with that?) Would that this had been given a makeover to give it reason to exist at all.
However, that wasn’t Juliana Hatfield’s intention with this album, a collection by a fan for a fan, which wears its heart on the outside. And wears it well.