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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Smoke but No Fire : Perky Juliana Hatfield Fails to Infuse Meaning, Emotion Into Songs of Unfulfilled Love

September 10, 1993|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Here's another repackaging proposal for Hollywood: "Gidget Gets Depressed," starring Juliana Hatfield.

Hatfield, college-rock's waif of the moment on the strength of her alternative chart hit, "My Sister," was as cute and fresh-faced as could be Wednesday night at the Coach House in her blond bangs and ponytail.

She had on a clean, white T-shirt and slacks, and with sweatbands on her wrists to keep her guitar fingers dry, you could almost have taken her for a young physical education teacher reporting to her first job.

Instead, the Boston-bred singer was arriving for the first date of her U.S. tour with her band, the Juliana Hatfield Three.

She entered with a skip in her step, a cheery "hi" to the near-capacity crowd, and a waggle of her hips to kick in her two-man rhythm section. Within moments, Hatfield was smiling and hopping in place.

So what if her opening song was called "Addicted," and had lines like, "my body is a shell, a broken, empty shell." This was shaping up as Juliana a-Go-Go, the Go-Go in question being Belinda Carlisle, another name to keep in mind for that Gidget revival.

Hatfield's run as Gidget didn't last long, though. Any signs of perkiness subsided as the 26-year-old singer-songwriter got down to the business of telling her tales of post-adolescent confusion and lack of fulfillment.

The problem with her hour on stage wasn't a shortage of catchy songs or an absence of muscle--sharp melodic hooks and driving beats abounded. It was that she failed to dramatize the characters in her songs, to give her show a story line.

*

It would have been interesting to watch that perky persona crumble under the weight of the romantic rejections and assorted other woes in Hatfield's lyrics.

But she didn't inhabit any role convincingly. She was just another singer with a world of troubles on her mind, relating them through rock songs competently played, but not rendered with any special fire or exuberance. If Hollywood is going to do that remake with her, she'll need some direction.

(One good bit of advice would be to can the show-closing covers the Hatfield Three chose: a clunky rendition of the Eurythmics' "Here Comes the Rain Again," and an anemic attempt at the old Lesley Gore venom-spitter, "You Don't Own Me.")

Hatfield could be insistent in peak moments, but she didn't have the personality to grab you and knock you back and make you feel that the lives in her songs were passing before you.

"Spin the Bottle," which evoked the kissing game of the same name, found her yelping, "spin it 'round again," with a tyke's giddy excitement, but Hatfield didn't use any body English to reinforce the whirling motion in the lyric and in the song's gaily woozy rhythm.

She paired "Spin the Bottle" in a medley with "Everybody Loves Me But You." The two songs pretty much summed up the core emotional progression of her work: too-exuberant hopes, followed by a big letdown.

Over the course of an entire show, Hatfield's small, piping voice wasn't enough to sustain interest, especially since it was being crowded by Dean Fisher's rumbling bass.

Hatfield tried to stretch her limited means and gain an emotional payoff by making her voice shred on high notes, or crack over a series of staccato syllables. She even mustered an uncharacteristic, full-on growl at one point in her tough-sounding rape-avenger fantasy, "Dame With a Rod" (Hollywood's already done that plot, calling it "Thelma and Louise").

*

What Hatfield needed was a second, firmer voice to complement her thin, airy one. If she could have made her guitar sing at strategic junctures, she'd have had the answer to her problem. But her playing never got beyond basic chordal breaks.

Several times during the show, some well-applied licks from the garage-rock lexicon could have kicked a decent song to a higher level of excitement. But Hatfield failed to supply the charge.

At one point, she paused and asked the audience, in a solicitous voice, "You OK? You seem a little down tonight." Fisher suggested that the sit-down crowd bust up the furniture, on the theory that the presence of chairs and tables was inhibiting the fans.

Hatfield sensibly vetoed that idea. It's up to the band, not the club, to supply the kindling to fire up a crowd.

Madder Rose, reviewed favorably in June when it opened for the Sundays at UC Irvine's barn-like Crawford Hall, was even more impressive given the advantage of an intimate club with a superior sound system.

Honoring the garage-rocking spirit of the Velvet Underground without aping its sound, this New York City band offered an involving sampling of slow, mysterious songs alternating with furious rockers.

Mary Lorson sang with bittersweet restraint, yet made the songs' distress palpable. Billy Cote's intense bursts of judiciously applied noise guitar and the sharp vocal harmonies of bassist Matt Verta-Ray gave the band the extra dimensions that the Hatfield Three was missing.

On "Swim," Madder Rose even managed a subtle bit of humor, copping the jaunty chorus melody of Bob Dylan's "Quinn, the Eskimo," a song heralding the arrival of a rescuing hero, and applying it to a lyric envisioning the flailing of a drowning person with no rescue in sight. "Bring It Down" is the debut album by this promising band.

*

Opening was Scarlet Promise, an Orange County foursome that is stuck on the dark Brit-rock romanticism of '80s bands like Echo & the Bunnymen and the Mission U.K.

All stormy portents, delivered with declamatory drama but little melodic range, this effete style has been passe for several years now, and rock is much the better for it. Scarlet Promise did demonstrate strong instrumental skills, and singer Johnson Thomas had good stage command.

But there's no good reason for a bunch of Southern California guys to go stumbling around on wind-swept Wuthering Heights. Come in from the rain, fellas, before it's too late.

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