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The last time the Blake Babies were in heavy rotation on my stereo was way back in 1991, when their classic Sunburn LP rarely left my CD player. The band’s reign was short-lived, however, because 1991 also saw the release of Nevermind and, just a few months into 1992, the Beastie Boys offered up Check Your Head. These hugely popular and influential records changed the musical landscape so dramatically that the pretty, post-R.E.M. jangle rock the Blake Babies made suddenly seemed, well, insubstantialso much so that the band nearly disappeared from hipster consciousness. By the time MTV had fully colonized the alternative nation, a harder edge was de rigueur and the Babies were on the verge of calling it quits.
Purportedly named by longtime William Blake enthusiast Allen Ginsberg after a reading at a Boston university, the Blake Babies frequently lived up to their moniker, with leader Juliana Hatfield singing the band’s romantically jaded songs of experience in the most innocent of little-girl voices. It was a potent combination, giving early tracks such as the wide-eyed “Out There” and the epic “I’m Not Your Mother” the force of an especially incendiary temper tantrum. Still, it was often hard to resist thinking, Gee, she sure sounds cute when she’s mad. Eventually, though, ennui, poor sales, and just that kind of condescension led to the band’s demise, with the famously still-virginal Hatfield embarking on a spotty solo career more notable for its misses (the recent Total System Failure) than its near-hits (the distant Become What You Are).
Arguably, the best of Hatfield’s non-Babies work is the sweetly sexy contribution she made to the Lemonheads’ It’s a Shame About Ray, a record the new God Bless the Blake Babies occasionally resembles. Head Lemonhead Evan Dando returns the favor on the band’s new album, handling bass duties on three of the LP’s tracks and providing a perfect vocal foil for Hatfield on three others. At its best, God Bless the Blake Babies channels both the Lemonheads’ punk-infused power pop and the Velvets-y feel of an early R.E.M. B-sideone, admittedly, with a tendency toward incisive self-flagellation: “It’s funny when you realize/That you are a cliché,” Hatfield sings on the sublimely murky “Civil War.”
That brutalizing impulse was a Blake Babies hallmark, thanks mostly to Hatfield’s impressive knack for writing self-addressed poison-pen letters. And things haven’t changed much over the past decade, either: Lyrically, Hatfield is back to her old tricks throughout the new record, lacing plenty of fear and self-loathing into her pathetically pithy words and then singing them with the same naive sensibility that’s always made her such an arresting and verifiably maladjusted vocalist.
Fortunately, the entire record isn’t a downer. On “Disappear,” the LP’s noisy opener, the Babies showcase their talent for ragged, guitar-driven rock ‘n’ roll. The track features a bright, major-key chord progression that short-circuits Hatfield’s low-voltage lyrical negativism, which this time takes aim at a good-for-nothing ex-boyfriend who borrowed and trashed the singer’s guitar. Regrets? Hatfield’s had a few: “What I wouldn’t do/Go back to ’92/And erase the moment I met you.” Musically, the track is a sweet anthem in the same way The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song is; you keep waiting for someone to reassure Hatfield that she’s gonna make it after all.
And maybe she will. Although current publicity photos show her looking like a burned-out Runawayor perhaps the Donnas’ drunken den motherHatfield seems more engaged on this outing than on any of her recent post-Babies efforts. And because, coincidentally or not, 1992 was the year of the Blake Babies’ untimely demise, it’s tempting to the see the image of Hatfield taking back her guitarnot to mention her getting the band back togetheras a sign of affirmation. The rest of the disc mostly bears this premise out. Despite a clutch of midtempo hand-wringers scattered throughout the album, God Bless the Blake Babies offers plenty of the combustible jangle rock the band perfected in its heyday, giving longtime fans and newcomers alike good reason to celebrate the rebirth of the Babies. More, please.
The last time Love Tractor was in heavy rotation on my stereowait…never mind. Let’s just say that it was during a time when 120 Minutes actually seemed to matter and ponytailed A&R types converged on Athens, Ga., like particularly smarmy moths gathering around a 100-watt front-porch light bulb. In those days, Love Tractor was the second-best band in Athens, touring successfully all over the South and vying for attention with fellow townies R.E.M., with whom they once shared drummer Bill Berry.
The band’s early bias toward arty, atmospheric instrumentals, however, virtually ensured that Love Tractor would never attain R.E.M.’s massive success, even as it relieved the group of the burden of making the attempt. At the beginning, though, both groups played a languid, Southern-inflected interpretation of New Wave, one that laced folk rock into the style’s twitching and hyperactive mix. Add the late, lamented Pylon and the weirdly wondrous B-52’s, and you’ve got the makings of an American alternative-music scene so vital that, for my money, only New York City’s in the late ’70s and early ’80s can compare.
Twelve years after Love Tractor’s last studio effort, the new The Sky at Night finds the band returning to fine, if familiar, form, serving up a heaping helping of its trademark spacey, hillbilly art rock. “Balthus (The Old Clothesline),” the disc’s standout track, literally is art rock, with vocalist-guitarist (and late-blooming art-history student) Mike Richmond turning in the most melodic critical essay you’ll ever hear: “A child of 9 sits on her bed/The smell of fresh-cut grass/comes through the window/Framing scenes/Above the old clothesline,” he sings, describing a painting he loves in obsessive detail. The lyric is nearly arrhythmic, but the track’s insistent and eminently danceable beat (always a Love Tractor specialty) provides a percussive counterpoint and also relieves the relative didacticism of the words.
There’s not much didactic about “Bright,” an ironically titled dark and snaky dance number. Suspended above a sinewy bass line and an angular, stutter-stepping rhythm, a lone guitar chimes in with occasional bursts of solo phrases but no actual solos (not a bad idea in general, actually). The track also introduces sitar into the Love Tractor mix, with riffs so seductively cosmopolitan that they just might inspire the boys of Cornershop to get their asses back into the studio at long last. “Christ Among the Children” is similarly bewitching, with a twangy, big-boned Telecaster riff laced through the song’s chiming rhythm guitars and jubilant, falsetto vocalizing.
Does it smell like teen spirit? Hell no. But a decade after Nirvana and the Beasties changed the world, Love Tractor and the Blake Babies finally sound ready to change it back. CP