Listeners used to know just what to expect in a new Juliana Hatfield album: tight, perfectly executed pop songs characterized by confessional lyrics and thin, clear vocal lines. The recordings were uniformly enjoyable, and their best songs were luscious pop gems that struck deep into the hearts of sensitive alterna-teens nationwide.
The new six-song EP Please Do Not Disturb reflects a myriad of changes for the singer-songwriter. After eight years on the North Carolina independent label Mammoth (though her last two full-length releases were distributed by industry giant Atlantic), Hatfield has chosen a tiny Hoboken indie, Bar/None Records, to put out her latest material. This release comes at a time of conflict for the artist. Though recording and mixing for her upcoming full-length, God's Foot, has been complete for months, the album is stuck in limbo, caught in a bitter copyright war between Mammoth and Atlantic.
Please Do Not Disturb is intended to tide over Hatfield fans until the legal haggling over God's Foot subsides, and it succeeds not only in this respect but also in generating a great deal of excitement regarding any future Juliana Hatfield releases. Despite its short duration, Please Do Not Disturb incorporates a high degree of experimentation, the majority of which is exhilarating and successful.
Gone is the overt pop exuberance of the 1993 hit "Spin the Bottle," and the openly confessional tone of such Hatfield classics as "Everybody Loves me But You" and "Ugly". Instead, each track on Please Do Not Disturb contains a creative approach to personal songwriting. Rather than bowl over her audience with pained confidences, Hatfield has chosen to seek out alternate methods of self-expression.
On the EP's opening track, the straight-ahead-rocker "Sellout", Hatfield displays more confidence than on her entire previous album, 1995's curiously sedated Only Everything. On that release, attempts to make her music harder often just made it sludgy. Here, the raw pop energy of her older releases is elegantly mixed with urgent, driving power chords and uncharacteristically noisy guitar solos. The song's lyrics provide an ironic commentary on the undernourished sound and sales of Only Everything. "It's not a sellout if nobody buys it/I can't be blamed if nobody likes it"
"Trying Not To Think About It" is a plaintive, moody examination of denial and self-deception. The opening verse rails irrationally on the intrinsic faults of innocent locales ("Southern California is bad for the soul") before grudgingly returning to the self: "how can I shield myself from the things that I hear?/I want to close my eyes and sleep for a year." The arrangement, mixing bongos and warm organ tones with Hatfield's melancholy guitar strumming, manages to sound simultaneously spare and rich--a rare achievement and testament to Hatfield's songwriting prowess.
The real excitement on this little EP, however, comes with the next three tracks. Together, they are smart, varied, powerful and uncompromising. At first, "As If Your Life Depended On It" seems to be a condemnation of used women in the vein of Hatfield's rant "Supermodel." However, an intricate pronoun game at work in the song reveals its actual subject: Hatfield herself. Instead of saying "I" over and over, Hatfield starts the song out in the second person, pointedly commenting on an unknown woman's pathetic dependency: "Crack a joke/light his smoke/as if your life depended on it."
But the song's subtle wordplay starts to hint at a deeper complexity. Is she singing "all they symbolize" or "all these simple lies"? It's difficult to tell, and Hatfield keeps delivering the line differently to keep her audience on its toes. Eventually, she starts to slip in the occasional "I" to replace "you" almost guiltily. Hatfield is serving up her usual heaping serving of deeply intimate lyrics but with a creative twist that actually works.
Some more bizarre risk-taking that ends up paying off is Hatfield's employment of ultra hardcore bass grooves strongly reminiscent of the scary-intense work of shock-metal band Tool. On "Give Me Some Of That," Hatfield breaks out some heavy fuzz bass that will blow away anyone expecting sugary pop--or any pop at all. The newly-30 Hatfield makes it frighteningly easy to identify with her rage at the loss of youth: "If I had/half of what you had/I would be so/so fucking glad!"
"Get Off," though, is the true triumph of Please Do Not Disturb. It incorporates the same mega bass of "Give Me Some Of That" but melds it seamlessly with an achingly beautiful pop refrain. Starting out as neogrunge, the song quickly shifts to minimalist slow-core hooks for the verse. When Juliana commands early on to "Get off of me!", it sounds pretty imposing. Suddenly, though, the song shifts gears; as the chorus approaches, the thrash elements melt away, leaving only a soaring, melodic vocal line that is not a command at all, but a poignant plea.
In 22 minutes, Juliana Hatfield has managed to redefine herself and move forward musically in a way that she has not since the 1993 release of Become What You Are. Not only is Hatfield the only vocalist who can sing "me" as a five syllable word, she is the only lyricist who is writing lines like "There's no such thing as pleasant conversation/it's all just drowning victims gasping for air." Keep gasping, Juliana.