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Second Childhood 

Alternarock cult faves the Blake Babies reunite -- with eyes on a smaller prize

Wednesday, Jun 13 2001
Freda Love Smith has what she calls a scheming mind, and moneymaking ideas come easily to her. "I've got a million of 'em," she laughs, referring to the plots she hatches while walking around her hometown of Bloomington, Ind. Smith's latest scheme, though, is a doozy: In 1999, with little fanfare, Smith began a mission that most would have deemed hopeless. She reunited the long-lost group the Blake Babies.

Indie music fans of a certain vintage will remember the Blake Babies -- drummer Smith (then Freda Boner), guitarist/ singer John Strohm, and singer/bassist Juliana Hatfield -- as the Wunderkinder of late-'80s Boston post-punk. The young band had the right indie connections (Fort Apache studios, Mammoth Records) and enough momentum to ride the then hot college rock genre to ... somewhere bigger than its Massachusetts home. To believers and fans, the Blake Babies were the right band at the right place, breaking up at exactly the wrong time.

These days, all that prognosticating feels like ancient history. In the nine years since the band's demise, Hatfield, Strohm, and Smith have toured the world with various groups, contributed to over 30 different CDs, and appeared on MTV and in national magazines. Strohm and Smith are both married, and Smith has two children. But, now, thanks to Smith's moxie, the Blake Babies are back. Back with a new CD, a rented van, and a scheme all their own: The Blake Babies want a second shot at the small time.

The Blake Babies formula was both simple and devastating: Bookend sweet pop melodies with dissonant rock moments. Their albums were a bewitching hybrid of R.E.M. jangle and Dinosaur Jr. squall, with Hatfield's charming wail cutting a path through the music's stormy-then-sunny landscapes. Songs such as Earwig's "Cesspool" and Sunburn's "Sanctify" were seminal events in power pop history, commingling anger and joy in blissful anthems.

Beneath the dynamic songwriting union of Strohm and Hatfield, however, tensions were a-brewing. "We were both steering the ship," says Strohm. "There was always a huge power struggle going on."

The disagreements over creative control became increasingly rancorous as the Blake Babies received more attention. Before the trio could record a follow-up to 1991's Rosy Jack World EP, Hatfield left to pursue a solo career. Strohm and Smith went on to work together in the noise pop group Antenna; after a few records Strohm went his own way, and Smith began drumming in cello-rockers the Mysteries of Life.

Meanwhile, Hatfield's solo career was eclipsing both her former bandmates'. With two radio hits, fashion shoots in Vogue and Sassy, and a cameo on the cult TV show My So-Called Life, Hatfield became the pre-Liz Phair female icon. Unfortunately, her celebrity didn't last. When her third solo album failed to get the exposure of its predecessors, Hatfield parted ways with Mammoth Records, choosing the much more modest Rounder label for future releases.

The rapid downsizing of Hatfield's career mirrored Strohm's and Smith's experiences. By 1999, the band members' commercial lulls had them looking for new projects. The moment was ripe for Smith to pitch her reunion idea.

Strohm remembers being skeptical when Smith contacted him about getting back together. "My first thought was that Juliana would never do it," Strohm says with a chuckle. "I thought, "It's a good idea, but it ain't gonna happen.'"

Hatfield, though, was eager to try collaborating again, and soon thereafter began exchanging demos of potential songs with Strohm. The actual studio work was done over 10 quick days -- in secret.

"When we went in to make the album, no one really knew we were doing it," Hatfield remembers. "Because we had no idea if it would turn out to be good. ... If it had turned out horribly, we just wouldn't have released it."

Tucked into Bloomington's Echo Park Studios, the band found its old chemistry returning. With the members now a more mature thirtysomething, their dreaded interpersonal problems were nowhere to be found.

The resulting album, God Bless the Blake Babies -- named for Bono's clueless response to an interviewer's question about what he thought of the band -- sounds pretty much like you'd hope: like the Blake Babies with a decade more songwriting experience under their belts. There are no novelty house beats, no string sections, no radical shifts in direction. During recording, everyone was wary of tampering with something that seemed to be working so well on its own.

"We didn't really want to belabor the process in any way," Hatfield explains. "We didn't want to conceptualize too much; we wanted to keep it totally natural."

As before, the group's best numbers are the collaborations between Hatfield and Strohm. But on the new tunes, the duo's winning formula -- Strohm's music with Hatfield's words and vocals -- gets a more straightforward reworking. Songs like the speedy, contagious "Disappear" drop the meandering guitar interludes that acted as frames for the pop moments on Earwig and Sunburn, making for a more direct album -- one that feels confident without being cocky.

The record is also more democratic in the songwriting. Smith penned the single, the doldrums-banishing "Nothing Ever Happens," and contributed the smoky "When I See His Face." There's a standout cover of Madder Rose's "Baby Gets High," and a number with vocals by longtime friend and Lemonheads leader Evan Dando. (Both Hatfield and Strohm spent time on the Lemonheads' payroll.)

The laid-back, take-it-as-it-comes philosophy that reigned in the studio has since become the group's mantra outside as well. With all the band members bearing major label scars, their ambitions for commercial success and critical acclaim range from low to nonexistent.

"I feel like [God Bless] has been well-received, but it's not hugely successful or anything," says Smith, happily. "It's having its modest success, and that's what I expected. It feels like a side project."

Hatfield is equally sanguine about the possibility of never reaching a mass audience with her music. "Even back [in the early '90s], I didn't have very high hopes of commercial success," she explains. "I've always believed we appealed to people in the margins who are kind of quirky."

Happily, with the album out on Rounder's artist-friendly imprint Zoë Records (the same division that released Hatfield's last three albums), the band can stay marginal without having to worry about getting booted.

The lack of pressure from Zoë has made touring less stressful as well. Of course, it helps that past tour traditions like late-night readings from Penthouse Forum have been abandoned for (mostly) early nights. "We're all pretty healthy," explains Hatfield. "I don't think any of us even drinks coffee. Everyone always has a box of green tea, and we sort of dole out the green tea bags in the morning." Hatfield pauses and laughs. "So rock 'n' roll."

The grungy realities of lugging their own equipment and traveling together in a single rented van also help keep things humble. The liberating certainty that the band will never again be the Next Big Thing keeps any rock star moments the group has enjoyed -- like opening for Live at Birmingham's City Stages Music Festival or being recognized by passing motorists on the freeway -- thoroughly in check. For better or worse, the days of hype are over.

The days of a reunified band may be numbered as well. Strohm heads off to law school in the fall ("All my rock 'n' roll friends are like, "You're doing what?'"), and Hatfield is hearing the call of another solo record. Neither of which bodes well for another Blake Babies album or tour.

But who knows, this might just become a regular event. Stranger things have happened -- just ask Smith. "I do sometimes wonder if there might not be one more [record]," she says, with a teasing laugh. "I guess I need to talk to John and Juliana about that first." She draws up short, reflecting. In the silence, you can almost hear the wheels turning.

"I'll have to start scheming on that one," she says, laughing.

About The Author

Chris Baty


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