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god bless the blake babies
The Blake Babies
God Bless the Blake Babies
Zoe/Rounder

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Right around the time the Blake Babies broke up back in 1991, a less-than-ideal financial situation forced me to stop buying CDs for quite a while. As a result, I missed out on their final days, sidestepped John Strohm and Freda Love's subsequent Antenna records and discounted Juliana Hatfield's solo efforts as too mass-market for my tastes. Indeed, other than hearing a few of John Strohm's projects during Splendid's early years, I've been Blake Babies-free for longer than the band members. And I haven't suffered.

The point I'm trying to make here is that God Bless... exists not because of any perceived need for a new Blake Babies record, but because the band (in particular, drummer Freda Love Smith, who reportedly instigated the reunion) felt the urge to make one. The Blake Babies' story doesn't need an epilogue; it's easily concluded with "And they all went on to other bands and varying degrees of success." They were popular, perhaps even influential on a very modest scale, but not revelatory. You are, in other words, quite right to be cynical about God Bless the Blake Babies.

It is, therefore, something of a surprise that God Bless... turns out to be as good as it is. After ten years of artistic growth, Hatfield, Strohm and Smith have returned to their old formula, but they're very different people. Hatfield's coquettish breathiness is less precocious; not only has she seen the back-side of commercial success, but she now has the life experience necessary to provide a solid foundation for her confessional tone. In 1990, a song like "Disappear" would've seemed shrill and a little bratty, but the modern Juliana can muster enough world-weariness to make it work. Strohm, meanwhile, having lent his name and/or talents to a number of more robust rock outlets over the years, helps to give God Bless... some much needed backbone. At their wussiest, the Blakes could have kicked Of Montreal's collective ass around the block a half-dozen times, but it's nice to see them pushing the rock envelope. Strohm's guitar always seemed constrained by the Blake Babies' sound, but here he lets the riffs out for air. It's similarly pleasing to see drummer Freda Love Smith come out from behind her drum kit a little; in particular, the understated "When I See His Face" gives Smith a chance to share the creative/romantic spotlight with husband Jake. It's not a striking sound, but it's one of the record's most memorable songs.

From a historical perspective, the best songs here are tunes on which Hatfield and Strohm share the writing chores. While it offers few surprises, "Disappear" is a strong opening gambit, while the quieter "Until I Almost Died" updates the group's conversational sound. Both songs seem intriguingly autobiographical, leaving me wishing I knew more about the real-world events behind the lyrics. The band's cover of Madder Rose's "Baby Gets High" is also surprisingly effective; this is due largely to its uncomplicated lyrics, which work particularly well with Hatfield's trademark breathy spoken-sung delivery. The band sounds richer, fuller and more confident. Sometimes they also sound a little too slick for their own good -- a nagging concern with "Disappear", among others -- but the studio glitz is matched by artistic maturity. On the downside, do we really need to hear from Evan Dando? His guest-star presence, particularly on "Brain Damage", seems superfluous -- surely he has his own career to resurrect?

Ultimately, God Bless the Blake Babies is far from essential listening, but it's an example of the right way to reunite. Above and beyond the nod to nostalgia, it's clear that the band members have been doing something other than sitting around and collecting steadily-shrinking royalty checks since we last heard from them. And even if you look at it as a shameless attempt to cash in on thirty year old indie rock fans' nostalgia, God Bless has infinitely more cred than that Eagles reunion album. But then, what doesn't?

-- George Zahora
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