Hatfield shows an earnest appreciation for songs that were once dismissed as AM radio fluff.
In this curious experiment, Juliana Hatfield, known for ‘90s alternative rock with Blake Babies, The Lemonheads and her own trio, covers songs originally made famous by ‘70s pop singer Olivia Newton-John. An English-Australian singer-actress best known for the 1978 movie musical Grease, Newton-John has recorded nearly 30 albums and has sold a mind-blowing total of over 100 million records worldwide. But even if you are unfamiliar with Newton-John’s easy-listening heyday—or with Hatfield’s indie rock catalogue, for that matter—there’s good news. This album is no mere karaoke exercise in nostalgia. With production that’s shiny but never cloying, Hatfield shows an earnest appreciation for songs that were once dismissed as AM radio fluff, but prove to be fine examples of pop craft.
Hatfield’s cover of Newton-John’s 1975 hit, “Have You Never Been Mellow” starts with a woodwind melody that’s entirely faithful to the syrupy original. But subtle guitar and drum work soon distinguish the reverent approach. Written by John Farrar, the song has an easy-going, irresistible melody and charming, naïve lyrics: “Have you never been happy just to hear your song?” Hatfield’s voice, which sounds better than ever, handles it with a healthy dose of sweetness, which was what defined Newton-John’s initial persona, after all. But Hatfield also emotes with enough nuance to steer clear of the saccharine, as on the countrified “Please Mr. Please” and the new wave-era “A Little More Love” “Totally Hot,” unfortunately, is beyond redeeming, even by someone as talented as Hatfield.
Newton-John fans will be happy that Hatfield covers several songs from the ill-fated 1980 musical Xanadu, originally recorded with ELO. The movie and its soundtrack were critical and commercial flops at the time, but have since earned a level of kitschy reassessment. These songs are perhaps more dated, but they’re also more eclectic, and the title track in particular gives Hatfield a chance to use ELO-like harmonies and guitars in an arrangement that hews close to its source. Also from Xanadu is the Carpenters-esque “Suspended in Time,” which Hatfield transforms from its breathy, feathered origins into a more mysterious and seductive song that you might imagine Jane Birkin singing. Lyrics like “But I know for certain/ Goodbye is a crime/ So love if you need me/ Suspend me in time,” which in the original sound dialed-in, come across as genuinely vulnerable in Hatfield’s capable hands.
The album builds an unlikely bridge between Newton-John’s radio-friendly bubblegum and contemporary indie rock, as Hatfield reclaims a somewhat bland figure from pop history and injects her with a potent 21st century relevance. The 1981 hit “Physical,” for instance, was an attempt to reinvent the girl-next-door and give Newton-John a confident sex appeal (as well as a music video that tapped a then-peaking workout craze). Hatfield’s guitar-driven cover takes a rawer and more relaxed arrangement, but her voice leads with an more innocent tone, conveying a sensual excitement that the original lacked; this defines the difference between professional Top 40 song craft and the exuberance of indie rock.
Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John makes the compelling arguments that the ‘70s pop star, though not a songwriter herself, might have had more of an impact on college rock and ‘90s alt-rock than one might ever have imagined. This bubblegum hasn’t lost its flavor yet.