Back in the days of grunge, Juliana Hatfield was briefly alt-rock flavour of the month with the kind of MTV-friendly guitar pop that saw contemporaries like Belly and the Lemonheads (for whom she briefly played bass) see relative commercial success. Since then she’s quietly gone about her business under the radar, certainly this side of the Atlantic.
All the same, even though her profile’s lower these days, it’s not without some reputational risk she’s releasing a whole album of Olivia Newton-John covers. An indie star outing themselves as a lover of cheesy pop normally requires a tongue placed firmly in cheek, but this is clearly an honest and serious labour of love. She’s struck for the pure pop heart of it with no sense of irony. The effect is akin to The Walkmen’s version of Harry Nilsson’s Pussycats, rather than, say, Arctic Monkeys farting about doing Girls Aloud.
Hopefully, she’ll forgive her audience for being unacquainted with the remoter corners of Newton John’s oeuvre. ONJ was a bigger deal in the States, but even there, some of these were only minor hits. So, realistically, there’s only one place you wanna start…
Physical sounds exactly as you would imagine. It’s a straight-up indie carbon copy, simply stripped of its more 80s signifiers. Apart from being cracking good fun, there isn’t much to add, although a scratchy guitar solo in the instrumental break takes it some nice places and if anything, Hatfield seems even more imploring than ONJ in her vocals. She *really* wants to hear your body talk.
As for the other big hitters, Hopelessly Devoted To You is also played admirably straight. Hatfield doesn’t quite manage the same emotional peaks and troughs that ONJ does, but it’s an honourable attempt and a reminder of the song’s lilting loveliness. Xanadu is also always a welcome musical visitor. You’re on a hiding to nothing trying to replicate the Jeff Lynne lushness, but this isn’t a bad effort. Hatfield sounds suitably ecstatic with her vocals, even if the top notes sound a stretch.
Delving deeper into the catalogue, I Honestly Love You (a US number one) and its reprise version bookend the album, which makes sense. Its slow-build lends itself to opening and closing. Suspended In Time‘s understated melody and minor chords are perhaps the most natural fit for Hatfield, making it the most fully-realised cover here. Have You Never Been Mellow (another US number one that didn’t register here) pushes it close in that regard.
In all cases, the purity of the melodies survive any roughing up the guitars give them, aided in no small part by Hatfield’s vocals, which were always gentle by rock standards.
A Little More Love‘s dirty power-chords sound a bit more like parody, but she rescues it by nailing the chorus with sincerity. And the strut of Totally Hot shows another side of ONJ, coming over like late 90s Sheryl Crow.
This album’s niche, then, but not pure gimmick. You might need to love both women to truly love this album, but you wouldn’t be disappointed if you were a fan of either, or even a curious bystander. Respect to Hatfield for being so hopelessly devoted to Newton-John and full marks for the cover art which does a good job of capturing the vibe.