BLAKE BABIES, along
with The Pixies, Galaxie 500 and The Lemonheads were an integral part of
the fertile Boston scene of the late eighties. Although never attaining the critical
kudos of their geographically connected band friends,The Blake Babies nevertheless
influenced the slew of grunge/alternative bands in the decade that followed. Putting
the emphasis back on the music rather than the image. While guitarist John Strohm
admits it was an exciting time his famously modest band mate Juliana Hatfield
is quick to point out that they never felt a part of their hometown movement.
"We felt that we weren't as "cool" or as "hip" as some of the more popular
bands like the Pixies or Dinosaur Jr." Hatfield is quick to point out, " I felt
that the Blake Babies were more nerdy, more fans than stars". However, around
the time of their sophomore album,"Sunburn" the band seem ready and willing to
break into the mainstream on their own terms. After being courted by a couple
of major labels the band realized it was an unrealizable dream, as Strohm confesses:
had to do it on our own terms, which no labels that approached us seemed to be
willing to consent to. I now see that, since we were never big, that was a naive
notion to have."
After five years, two LPs and EPs together the band
- JULIANA HATFIELD, JOHN STROHM and FREDA LOVE split in 1991 on the cusp of their
own and alternative music's move into the mainstream. The very same year as SONIC
YOUTH claimed, "Punk broke" Strohm says that the break up was a natural consequence
of growing apart:
"When we broke up it was out of necessity. We simply
weren't feeling it any more and we needed to immerse ourselves in fresh, new projects.
I don't know if I regret it or not, but we definitely did what we had to do."
For Hatfield it was important for her to refresh her musical palette "The
break up just, simply, seemed to be the right thing to do at the time needed to
move on and work with some different people and change the context." All the band
members changed the context and went onto to their own solo careers with varying
degrees of success. Stohm and Love continued, initially with the band ANTENNA
and Hatfield on her own.
Cut to 1997 and the three band members shared
the bill when ANTENNA supported Hatfield, and while the three band member did
not end up sharing the stage, it put the wheels in motion for a proper reunion,
as Hatfield says, "Freda and I started a dialogue about maybe trying to get together
and record something with me and the Mysteries of Life. Well, that never happened
(out-of-synch schedules) but then 1 1/2 years ago Freda suggested trying a Blake
Babies thing and we were able to make it happen, logistically."
had enjoyed major success as a solo artist. Her 1992 solo album, "Hey Babe" was
a critical and commercial success. Musically, the sound was just as sweet as The
Blake Babies, if not slightly harder. However, the media took the album's confessional
lyrics, and applied them to her indefinable relationship to then 'it' boy, Evan
Dando (who had played been bassist for the Blakes for a while). Suddenly Hatfield
became the latest big thing, her personal life was dissected and spat out again
by the media. Hatfield says of that time now:
did not enjoy it. I didn't sign on for that part of the career. I just wanted
to make records and play gigs, you know? It definitely took away from serious
criticism and original thought about my music. I was thrown on some dumb dung
heap of an "alternababe" bandwagon. After that I retreated and was glad to have
the trend spotting media back off and stop caring."
After the media interest
in Hatfield and grunge faded, Hatfield continued to release records albeit in
a much lower key fashion . After her last two releases, last years"Total System's
Failure"and "Beautiful Creature" Hatfield was ready to be part of her old band
"It was very refreshing and relaxing for me."she says" I had gotten
to a point where I was sick of myself musically and welcomed the collaboration
with the others. It's tiring to have to be the boss and make all the creative
decisions, all the business decisions, and to be the focus of all the attention
makes me uncomfortable. I love having the spotlight off of me."
Strohm it was equally easy to come back to the band he had begun with two college
friends "We certainly maintain a level of respect for one another's musical talent
and abilities, so it is very easy to let each other do our bits."
band reconvened in 1999 to write and record new material together. However, in
the midst of this they played a reunion show on New Years Eve. Taking the stage
for the first time since 1991proved to be an odd but ultimately satisfying experience
for all involved, "It was a bit of a mindfuck" admits Hatfield now." 10 years
had gone by and those years flashed before me and made me deeply consider what
I have and have not accomplished in those years. At the same time, playing together
felt so natural, almost as if we had never broken up." For Strohm there were no
such ambiguous feelings, "It was just a fun-ass time. We felt psyched that we
had made a really good album and wanted to celebrate".
The reunited band
welcomed back one time member Evan Dando on bass and backing vocals. Dando played
on 1988 album, "Earwig" and "Slow Learner" EP. Hatfield and Strohm returned the
favour by playing in Dando's band the Lemonheads at various times in the nineties.
The beautiful harmony vocals of Dando and Hatfield on "My Drug Buddy"on the Lemonheads'
"It's A Shame About Ray" remains a highlight of the bands career. As with bass
duties, Dando also resumed backing vocal on The Blake Babies new album and reunion
highlight of the New Years show (and the new album) was Dando's lead vocal performance
of "Brain Damage" a song he'd written with Ben Lee containing the lyrics "I've
tried all the drugs that I could find.....the brain damage is all in your head
" alluding rather clearly to his well documented substance abuse. As it seems
now natural to interpret Dando's substance addiction as a consequence of his early
success, did the prospect of mega-stardom become a less attractive prospect to
his sometime band members?
"I toured with Evan for a couple of years
during the height of his fame, and I think he's happier to be somewhat out of
the spotlight" Strohm says. He remains the most talented person I have ever known,
and I only hope that he continues to make great music for many years to come.
The world needs it. Was it a warning? Well, I think we all know better than to
get into the kind of trouble Ev got into, what with the drugs and taking his shirt
off at photo shoots."
Hatfield is more contemplative "Evan's "success"
or "failure" is entirely a media-created thing:
"He has never failed
as a songwriter or a singer. He has continued to write and play and just because
you didn't see it on t.v. doesn't mean it hasnıt been happening. The music we
make is fulfilling. Period. The creating of it is a beautiful thing. That's what
people need to understand".
The New Year's show completed the band set
about finishing their album.The band set on the shelf for a year while they shopped
around for a suitable record deal.When they found it, with ROUNDER RECORDS the
album, "God Bless The Blake Babies" was released in March of this year to almost
universal critical acclaim.The songs are a mix of their classic powerpop sound
and a more grown up sound that is more than a little influenced by Strohm's solo
Americana-influenced sound. Along with Dando's track, lyrically there is a definite
narcotic haze to the proceedings, Strohm admits this didn't go unnoticed amongst
the band members:
"The working title for the album was 'High As A Kite',
confesses Strohm, " We don't take drugs ourselves, but here's a news flash: the
music biz is full of drug fuckups, and we have had the pleasure of knowing many
of them. It's a real tragedy, because ideally drugs are one of God's gifts to
mankind, providing us with the ability to escape reality in a most pleasant way.
The problem is that people lack the proper reverence, respect and caution when
using them. They let the drugs control them and, in doing so, lose control of
Main lyricist Hatfield however is denies the songs were
written with any preconceived themes in mind, " It was not conscious "she says
now, " Itıs just that drugs are part of life. They're everywhere. Whether it's
heroin or alcohol or nicotine or pot or cocaine or prozac or valium or ecstasy
or chocolate doesnıt really matter. We all have drugs we love and we all have
loved people who love drugs."
The future is uncertain for the band with
Hatfield working on another solo album and Strohm off to law school next month.
However, with all parties admitting that the reunion was fun,who knows? At least
the band have given us a brilliant new album to hold close to our hearts and remind
us why this band is truly blessed.
Crud review: THE BLAKE BABIES - GOD
BLESS THE BLAKE BABIES
Harmonically, there was never a better pairing
than Evan Dando and Juliana Hatfield. At the peak of The Lemonheads popularity
they were the Gram and Emmylou of the grunge generation. The two first blended
vocals way back in 88 on The Blake Babies "Slow Learner" EP and, here they are
again, doing a duet on "Brain Damage", a song on The Babies first studio album
for 10 years. Lyrically it's both amusing and unsettling considering Dando's well
documented substance abuse: "I've done all the drugs that I could find
damage is all in your head". However, it is by no means the highlight of this
innovative album. While Juliana Hatfield solo albums have never been as unified
as you might wish them to be, her bittersweet 'my lover done me wrong' songs have
never had a better context than when they are rubbing shoulders with guitarist
John Strohm's sonically adventurous numbers and drummer Freda Love Smith's simpler
blusey efforts. In fact, there is enough light and dark here to make you heartily
agree with the album title, God Bless 'em indeed.
Report and Review compiled
by Priya Elangasinghe©