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Sob Sister Act : Juliana Hatfield Sings of Unrequited Love, Identity Confusion and Foiled Romanticism


You want answers in this life? Write Ann Landers.

But if you feel totally mixed-up, terminally confused, acutely unfulfilled, and in need of somebody who can really relate , then Juliana Hatfield may be the sob sister for you.

Hatfield, a winsome young Bostonian with a small, high, girlish voice and a guitar that barks, knows mixed-up and unfulfilled. It has been her stock in trade since she arrived on the college-rock scene six years ago with the Blake Babies.

Now Hatfield has her own band, the Juliana Hatfield Three, which also includes drummer Todd Philips and bassist Dean Fisher (the trio plays tonight at the Coach House). "Become What You Are," her first album on a major label, is pushing her to a wider audience on the strength of a typically catchy song called "My Sister."

For Hatfield, that alternative-chart hit represents mixed-up confusion as usual.

"I hate my sister," begins the first line of the first verse.

"I love my sister, she's the best," goes the first line of the second verse.

And Hatfield, 26, the sandwich child in a family of three kids, doesn't even have a sister. Like a lot of her songs, "My Sister" is purely the stuff of daydreams.

"Supermodel," the new album's leadoff track, manifests similar double-mindedness.

Hatfield starts by taking shots at a Cindy Crawford type. "The highest-paid piece . . ., you know it's not gonna last," she gloats. But she ends with a confession of jealousy: "I wish she'd trade places with me."

That's not to say that Hatfield is completely lacking in consistency. Her music is reliably airy and melodic, and she and her band play it rough enough to make you wonder whether the Bangles and Husker Du didn't break up after all, but simply merged.

Also, Hatfield's love songs follow a regular pattern: girl flips for guy; girl doesn't get guy--either because of her own timidity or because her would-be beau has eyes for others.

"My songs are about not knowing who to be and not knowing how to act," Hatfield said over the phone recently from Amsterdam, that piping little voice sounding ground-down late in the day from the rigors of a promotional trip to Europe.

"There's a lot of identity confusion. I'm pretty messed up, I think, but there are certain things I feel very strongly about. My music--that's the one area I won't let myself be pushed around. But in other parts of my life, I'm a confused mess."

Hatfield grew up in Duxbury, an upper-middle-class enclave near Boston, where her father is a physician and her mother the fashion writer for the Boston Globe.

She says she knew in high school that she wanted to be a rocker: the Police was her early favorite, then her older brother's girlfriend introduced her to the pantheon of college-rock influences: bands including the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, X and the Replacements.

Figuring that some formal background wouldn't hurt, Hatfield enrolled in Boston's Berklee College of Music, from which she graduated with a major in voice.

The Blake Babies began when she was in college, and followed the usual indie-rock path from homemade debut album to small-label deal and exposure via favorable reviews and steady touring.

Hatfield's pal, Evan Dando of the Lemonheads, served a hitch in the Blake Babies, and she returned the favor by playing bass and singing harmonies on "It's A Shame About Ray," the album that established the Lemonheads as a mainstream success.

Hatfield's conviction in the power of music was expressed last year in "Nirvana," the best song on "Hey Babe," her first solo album. In it, hearing a favorite song (she says she had in mind a track from "Bleach," Nirvana's pre-"Teen Spirit" debut album) rescues the protagonist from a suicidal mood and helps her get her ya-yas out in healthy, extroverted fashion instead of letting them quietly eat her up from inside.

But sitting in a hotel in Amsterdam, Hatfield admitted to being in a gloomy mood that a favorite song probably couldn't redeem. The previous night's show in London had gone badly due to equipment problems, and she had spent the following day feeling down.

"I'm just depressed today. That's going to color the whole interview," she said.

Hatfield wasn't in the emotional black hole John Lennon sang from in "Yer Blues" ("I even hate my rock 'n' roll"), but she confessed that music no longer holds for her the transcendent quality she ascribed to it in "Nirvana."

"Music is becoming less satisfying to me and doesn't seem to have the power it used to," she said. "So there isn't a song on the new record like 'Nirvana,' where music is the savior.

"For a long time, music was hope. Now it seems music isn't enough to make me happy. It used to be that's all I needed to keep going. Now I need other things to take up the other parts of my life. I want to emphasize that I haven't given up hope. I'm just starting to realize that music might not keep me happy forever. But it's still the main thing in my life, and I love it more than any person, right now," she said.

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