Record Review - 1 July 01 2004

In retrospect, it was ultimately in singer/ songwriter Juliana Hatfield’s best interest to have been brusquely jettisoned from the major label minefield. Too ornery, eclectic and inconsistent for mass consumption, Hatfield was never going to be the next VH1-friendly Sheryl Crow clone, no matter how thoroughly she was groomed.

Since 1998, Hatfield’s indie albums have been looser, less strained and more exuberant than her audience might have expected. On the latest — a lyrically depressing and sometimes defiant song cycle about dysfunctional relationships, much of the content presumably excerpted from her own diary — the former leader of Boston’s jangly collegiate pop trio the Blake Babies ironically sounds happy.

Whether she’s writing about a 40-year-old man reflecting on his wasted life while “Singing in the Shower,” or rocking out to plucky lines like, “My feeling for you endures like cancer” on the opening “Get in Line,” Hatfield’s enthusiasm bursts from the speakers. Giddy vocals shift from the upbeat Bangles-styled melodic pop of “Sunshine” to the reflective gossamer folk (with string quartet!) of Scottish singer/songwriter Dot Allison’s “Tomorrow Never Comes” — the album’s only cover — sung in a wispy, girlish voice flecked with world-weary resignation.

Each of these 13 tracks is a tightly crafted, tough gem treading and redefining the ground between Hatfield’s commercial guitar rock and her spiky indie roots. But more importantly, Hatfield sounds engaged throughout. She’s noticeably thrilled and proud to have fashioned arguably her most stirring, rocking, yet sincere album to date.

Juliana Hatfield plays the Echo Lounge Sat., July 3, 9 p.m. $10.