Juliana Hatfield opens Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John with the evergreen 1974 ballad “I Honestly Love You,” its string-sweetened arpeggio intro substituted with the buzz of a pair of distorted electric guitars, giving it an uncharacteristic crunch. Hatfield’s voice is markedly saltier than Newton-John’s whipped chiffon soprano, but when the familiar first verse arrives (“maybe I hang around here / a little more than I should / we both know I’ve got somewhere else to go”), the earnestness and vulnerability of the original still gleams. It’s proof that the substance of a well-constructed song will resonate regardless of how it might get bent and reshaped through interpretation.
This is the greatness of Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John: the depth and quality of the British-Australian chanteuse’s catalog linked with Hatfield’s indie-rock lens affectionately magnifying its versatility. It’s also a testament to the strength of Aussie songwriter and producer John Farrar, who is responsible for composing and arranging much of what’s represented here, and the vast majority of Newton-John’s most commercially successful singles.
But Newton-John deserves, and rarely receives, credit for the legacy she’s created in modern music history, especially as she so capably and comfortably walked the line between mainstream pop and country decades before Taylor Swift or the Dixie Chicks ever set foot in a studio. Her voice is patently unmistakable: pungent and deliberate at its most assertive, silken and serene at its most sensitive. Newton-John’s ace has always been her emotional appeal, which wasn’t lost on Hatfield when she chose to pursue the project.
"I have never not loved Olivia Newton-John,” she recently said in a press release from her label, American Laundromat Records. “Her music has brought me so much pure joy throughout my life. I loved her when I was a child and I love her still. Her voice and her positive energy and her melodies have stood the test of time and they give me as much pleasure now as they ever did.”
Hatfield, along with bassist Ed Valauskas and drummer Pete Caldes, have given Newton-John’s gems a little scratch-and-dent, which works especially well on some of the originals where their drum and synth programming haven’t aged quite as gracefully. So the percussion is thicker and more organic, and the guitar work adds dimension—listen to the kicked-up “Physical,” which has shed its legwarmers for torn jeans, and the gritty energy of “Make A Move on Me,” which was a bouncy (but still great) bit of cabaret in its previous life.
What many artists tend to miscalculate when they record a tribute album, Hatfield does well here. She allows most of Newton-John’s songs to live and breathe as they were originally intended, singing them in their original key and adding vocal and instrumental interest without stripping them of their nuance. That means “Have You Never Been Mellow” still retains its fresh breeziness, “Magic” keeps its dreamy alternating major-minor key melody line, and “Hopelessly Devoted to You” clings to the cinematic quality that made it such a great ballad in the first place. There are some deeper cuts here, too, like “Suspended in Time,” “Don’t Stop Believin,’” and “Dancin’ ‘Round and ‘Round” that will satiate those who are more familiar with Newton-John’s repertoire.
Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John captures appreciation in the purest sense of an artist who is generally underappreciated, and the lack of irony in Hatfield’s coverage is what makes it joyful to hear her relish the theatrical eccentricity of “Xanadu” and the sweet sentimentality of “Please Mr. Please.”
If you’re a fan of Newton-John’s or Hatfield’s, there are plenty of reasons you’ll want to put this record on and bask in its thoughtfulness. If you’re not familiar with either but appreciate an intuitive, talented artist giving voice to a batch of compelling compositions, this album’s for you too.
Notable Tracks: “Don’t Stop Believin’” | “Have You Never Been Mellow” | “Magic” | “Please Mr. Please"