Juliana Hatfield Three Sophomore Release--Twenty-One Years Later!

Whatever, My Love
American Laundromat Records 0035
* * *

Twenty-one years after the first Juliana Hatfield Three record, Hatfield has reunited with drummer Todd Philips and bassist Dean Fisher to make the trio's sophomore release. By her own admission Hatfield hasn't tried to "reinvent the wheel." Whatever, My Love is pretty much guaranteed to invite comparisons to other Hatfield projects through the decades, though it does have a few twists. Some listeners may be surprised by the album's moments of vulnerability. Hatfield has a bad girl reputation, partly because she made glib remarks when she was younger, and partly because controversy follows her like a hungry dog. Speaking of canines, the new record has two dog references, both ironic. Lyrically there are two subthemes–longing for closeness and offering shelter to those ambivalent about needing it. When Hatfield muses "If Only We Were Dogs," it's in the sense of wanting an intense physical interaction in a highly inappropriate setting. Several tracks later, "Dog on a Chain" suggests things didn't go well. In like fashion, metaphorical pawing arises in "I Don't Know What to Do with My Hands."

Hatfield is generally pigeonholed in the alt rock category, with reviewers noting her blend of rock and folk. The latter is simply a wrongheaded way of describing her soft voice, which she prefers to frame with Fisher's thick, heavy bass lines. "Dog on a Chain" evokes early '80s punk, and "Push Pin" has the new wave feel of a Devo song. Listen hard and you'll hear some bass homage–a touch of Rolling Stones is "I'm Shy" and a little bit of Cream in "Blame the Stylist." When Hatfield detours on the soft side, it's for pop-tinged songs such as "Invisible," or for some jangly rock such as "If I Could," the track being pushed as a single. Overall, this album's flavor is somewhere between The Stooges and The Lemonheads (with whom Hatfield once played). It's not earth-shatteringly original—just some pretty good rock and roll at a time in which that offering is in short supply. I could nitpick about the need for better balance so that Hatfield's vocals come through more clearly, but I'm just happy to hear three musicians who sound like they're sweating instead of posing. Rob Weir


Anna Falkenau's Quiet Celtic Power

Féileacán na Saoirse
Scroll Music 1401
* * * *

The Irish-to-English translation of Anna Falkenau's solo fiddle album is, roughly, "Butterfly of Freedom," an apt descriptor. It reminds me of Kevin Burke projects in the ways in which tunes are freed by putting composition and emotion at the fore instead of virtuosity. The trick, as Burke once patiently explained to me, is to make the music sound simple and easy flowing–like a butterfly's flight–even when it's hard to play. Falkenau does precisely this. Her tone and control are glorious, but the overall feel is that of a late-night session when the bar patrons have left and the remaining musicians are playing for each other.

This collection consists mostly of traditional Irish and American fiddle tunes inspired by the playing of such renowned old masters as Paddy Killoran, Tommy Peoples, and Pádraig O'Keefe, and recent ones the likes of Liz Carroll and Bruce Molsky. Aside from a few well-traveled tunes such as "Sally Coming through the Rye" and "The Jolly Tinker," though, Falkenau chooses material suited to her quiet and expressive style rather than ones that sound familiar. (Over-familiarity can be a curse on solo projects.) She does let her hair down on several pieces, including "The Coolea Jig" set, the American old-time selection "Richmond," her tour de force thump-out with bodhrán artist Johnny McDonagh on "The Little Cascade," and her note-for-echoing-note duet with accordionist Steve Sweeney on the wonderfully titled "The Sporting Pitchfork" set. But among the many things Falkenau does well is mix tempos and moods. "The House on the Hill/The Leading Role" is lilting and smooth, her take on hornpipes "Fitzgerald's/Bushmills" is stripped down and raw, and the lullaby effect of "Ivan's Waltz" is enhanced by her tasteful collaboration with harper Holly Geraghty. One of my favorites, though, was the only original on the CD, "Vodka & Chocolate." Falkenau's liner notes say that it came to her after a Cork session in which she had been overly imbibing in the aforementioned items. The next morning she fashioned a gorgeous piece that sounds faintly like a Breton an dro. Who says excess is a bad thing?
Rob Weir

Here's a YouTube live show performance of the CD's last selection. It's slow for a few minutes, but stay with it—it's worth it!


When She Woke--a Timely Rediscovery

When She Woke (2012)
Hillary Jordan
Algonquin Books, 341 pp.  ISBN: 9781565126299
* * * ½

This one slid past me when it came out in 2012, but it seems appropriate to revisit it in a political climate in which Tea Party zealots wield inordinate/inappropriate amounts of power. Hillary Jordan imagines a near-future in which conservative Christians gain power and institute a Jesus-centered version of Sharia law.  She updates Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter by replacing Puritans and old-fashioned cruelty with latter-day fundamentalists and high-tech inhumanity. Add a dystopian dollop from The Handmaiden’s Tale and you have a 21st century mash-up novel.

The “Great Scourge,” a virus that renders most women infertile, ushers in the political takeover of the Trinity Party. This band of Texas fundamentalists abolishes Roe v. Wade, clothes motherhood in cult-like garb, and remakes American society as a Biblical theocracy of Old Testament proportions. Theirs is a rigid world that marks all transgressors–literally. Those who stray from the straight and narrow undergo melachroming, a process that dyes their skin hues ranging from yellow to red, depending upon their sins.

Enter Hannah Payne (Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne), a young woman who tries to be a good Christian, but has too many questions and too much of an independent streak to mesh well with evangelical patriarchy. She finds herself attracted to the Rev. Aidan Dale (Arthur Dimmesdale) and nature takes its course. Complications arise when she becomes pregnant; Dale is married, promiscuity is a sin, and social ostracism a very real possibility. Hannah opts for the dangerous course of seeking an illegal abortion knowing that, if discovered, her troubles magnify.

Of course she’s discovered! When Hannah refuses to name the father or the abortionist, she is shipped to a melachroming facility and, when she awakes, she’s scarlet from head to toe. Solitary confinement is followed by a Dickensian stay at Magdalene House, a halfway facility for fallen women designed to impress upon their charges the enormity of their sins, prepare them to be social outcasts, and program them for patriarchal submission.

As you no doubt surmise, that doesn’t go well either. When She Woke becomes a life-on-the-lam tale that includes a shadowy underground movement called the Novembrists, a lesbian affair, a feminist awakening, and a showdown with Dale. It’s not easy being bright red, hence Hannah’s Underground Railroad-like flight (hopefully to freedom in Canada) is fraught with peril, treachery, and routine obstacles than threaten to become major.

This novel is more than a little derivative of not just Hawthorne and Atwood, but also of dozens of other dystopian novels. Jordan acknowledges her sources, so is this homage or literary simulacra?  A bit of both actually. When She Woke is a fast-paced read with lots of thrilling moments, some of which work very well and some of which are for-heaven’s-sake forced. One annoying device is the repeated phrase “It’s personal,” which is used by numerous characters to not explain what they’re doing (or to save it for a big revelation later on). In a similar vein, there are few too many close escapes for believability’s sake and after a while they feel like story padding. Good luck fathoming how Hannah goes from distressed Christian to lesbian lust in a single encounter. And Jordan’s color metaphors strike me as too obvious.

On the other hand, Jordan’s treatment of faith is a plus. Some (who have likely never actually read the book) accused Jordan of belittling Christianity. Far from it. We see Hannah struggle with faith and reject intolerant versions of it, but not to the end you might imagine. Jordan also raises slippery slope questions of intolerance. Where is the line between personal belief and imposed will? How does religious freedom mutate into theocracy? At what things can a person of faith cast a blind eye and what must they condemn/punish?

As a reviewer I am compelled to draw Hawthorne/Atwood parallels; as a reader I’d encourage you to avoid comparisons as much as possible. I doubt When She Woke will become a novel for the ages, but it’s a very entertaining and thought-provoking novel for this age.  Rob Weir