Blake Babies Biography
Juliana Hatfield, John Strohm and Freda Love were inexperienced, intuitively talented teenagers when they first formed the Blake Babies in 1986. Strohm, who had come to Boston from Indiana with his then-girlfriend Love to study music production at the Berklee School of Music, had played in punk-rock bands since the age of 14. But Hatfield, who was also attending Berklee, was a shy beginner and Love had only been playing drums for six months. Their natural talents combined easily—Hatfield’s scrappy, girlish voice and wiry bass melodies; Strohm’s confident rock guitar; Love’s simple, comfortable pop beats. The chemistry between them was immediate and in a matter of months they would begin to be recognized as one of the most captivating bands in Boston’s celebrated local music scene, where their peers and friends included the Lemonheads, Galaxie 500 and Dinosaur Jr.
Soon after the trio started playing local club shows and independently recorded their debut EP, Nicely, Nicely, the Blake Babies’ hooky, subtext-edged garage-pop, equal parts sugar and venom, captured the ear of producer and Fort Apache studio head Gary Smith, whose enthusiastic patronage had also helped to launch the careers of Throwing Muses and the Pixies. The Blake Babies distinguished themselves among their groundbreaking peers in alternative rock with a strong-willed, deceptively complex musical personality all their own. Over arrangements of clean pop beats and post-punk-inspired, dirty-guitar jangle, Hatfield’s breathy, little-girl singing voice carried messages of poisonous wit (“Take Your Head Off My Shoulder,” “I’m Not Your Mother”) and poignant, self-disgusted vulnerability.
Infectious, melodic pop jewels such as “Lament” were the stuff of instant college-radio classics. Smith soon landed the band a deal with Mammoth Records, and in the five years the Blake Babies remained togeth
er, they produced a catalog of music—topped by their highly acclaimed Mammoth releases Earwig and Sunburn—that remains a critical reference point in alternative rock, still uniquely alluring and unsettling 10 years after they went their separate ways.
God Bless the Blake Babies, the trio’s first new material since their 1991 EP Rosy Jack World, is a brilliant coda to the Blake Babies’ catalog and a compelling testament to their individual accomplishments as musicians in the years that followed the band’s breakup. With the help of Evan Dando and other friends and family who contributed songs and musical tracks, the Blakes have re-ignited the vibrancy of their early sound, and redefined it with the maturity of experience.
Juliana Hatfield’s standout solo career, in which she has achieved commercial and critical success, has established her as one of the most consistently inspired songwriters and musicians of her generation. From her critically praised debut, Hey Babe, to last year’s powerful Zoë/Rounder double-CD release, Beautiful Creature and Total System Failure, she has never failed to take chances and master new musical territory. As a bass player with the Lemonheads and a guitarist on her own albums, Hatfield has claimed respect as a world-class rock musician. Her intricate, forceful songwriting and lyrical voice have yielded dozens of underground classics and a few commercial mega-hits—“My Sister” and “Spin the Bottle,” from her 1993 smash hit CD Become What You Are—made her a pop superstar.
John Strohm has explored an expansive musical range in the decade since the Blake Babies’ split. After going home to Bloomington, Indiana to form the psych-rock band Antenna with Freda Love, Strohm toured as lead guitarist with the Lemonheads in the mid-1990s and then led his third band, Velo-Deluxe, for a few years. He went on to release two critically acclaimed solo albums and has done session work on guitar, bass, drums and keyboards for an eclectic variety of alternative bands.
Freda Love left Antenna, after marrying and having two children, to form the Mysteries of Life with her husband Jake Smith, who is featured on God Bless the Blake Babies. It was Love’s idea to reform the Blake Babies for another album. “I went to see Juliana play in New York a few years ago, and when I saw her sing, I missed playing with her,” she said. “I thought, we’ve all come so far musically and as people—I bet it would be great playing together now. Then last year, it seemed the time was right.”
“It wasn’t a big-deal decision to regroup,” said Hatfield. “I guess we just realized we were all available at the same time. There was no pressure and no expectations. It was purely for our own pleasure and curiosity, to see what would happen. I think that made it easier to do.” They mailed each other songs for a few months and then went to work. God Bless the Blake Babies was recorded in 10 days at Echo Park Studios in Bloomington, Indiana, with co-producer Paul Mahern.
“Working in the studio is a skill you develop in the course of making records,” said Strohm. “Altogether, we’ve made about 40 albums in the last decade. We couldn’t have made another Blake Babies record 10 years ago, for a variety of reasons,” he said. “For one thing, we couldn’t have gotten along well enough in the studio to operate as equals…Then, we were really young, it unfolded a little too quickly, and in the end we all got wrapped up in the hype of the band and everything. We came together originally because we liked to play music, and then it turned into a full-time thing and a constant, eternal power struggle. You get a bunch of 19-year-olds with critics telling them they’re important, you’re asking for trouble,” he explained. “But there was something organic there that you can’t duplicate just by throwing a bunch of good musicians together. The reason we did the record is because we wanted to explore that a bit more, just to see if the chemistry is still there.”
The best American rock comes from the underground, and the Blake Babies have returned to prove it again. God Bless the Blake Babies—a one-off reunion album that fans can hope will lead to more —recaptures the vibrancy of the teenage Boston band that set a precedent for complex and catchy alternative pop in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Ten years later, the Blake Babies haven’t lost their touch. Leading off with such in-your-face pop muscle as “Disappear” and “Nothing Ever Happens,” the songs on their new album are as satisfyingly well turned as their best chestnuts. But the Blake Babies’ sound is all grown up.
God Bless the Blake Babies is a great alternative rock album on the merits of its fluidly melodic songwriting and tasteful, accomplished musicianship alone. It is also a work of cynical beauty and desperate, luminous hope. Hatfield’s voice has grown deeper and duskier over the years, more seductive and womanly; she croons and lashes out with a more sophisticated sense of irony. The world-weary obsessions and knifepoint personal insights and confessions of her solo work creep through the Blake Babies album—“The only thing I’ve ever wanted is to lose myself,” she sings languidly in “Waiting for Heaven”; “I’d really love to turn it off…it’s funny when you realize that you are a cliché,” she sings in “Civil War.”
God Bless the Blake Babies is less Hatfield’s album than a fully collaborative effort, but its knowing tone is continuous throughout. A balanced mix of songwriting credits includes Love’s first recorded Blakes song and tracks written by Strohm, Evan Dando, Ben Lee and Billy Coté, and lead vocals are passed around between all three band members. The album covers a stylistic range from the romantic, exotic curves of Coté’s “Baby Gets High,” to the wistful sadness of Strohm and Hatfield’s jangly, shimmery “Until I Almost Died.” “Brain Damage,” written by Dando and Lee and sung as a Dando/Hatfield duet, is a sinister little alternative rocker with a hard melodic bite. Hatfield closes the record with the surly groove of “On”: “Another wasted breath/on everything I said/it’s better in a song.”
There is no wasted breath here. God Bless the Blake Babies.