I received Lisa Loeb's new album, "Firecracker," and Juliana Hatfield's new EP, "Please Do Not Disturb," on the same day. I put them both in my CD player while I made dinner, and I didn't notice when one ended and the next began. During the next two days, whenever I listened to them together, I had to pay attention to know which one I was hearing. So it's strange that once I sorted them out, I was annoyed by Loeb and enamored of Hatfield. Though they have similar styles -- strummy guitars and baby-doll voices -- they stand on opposite sides of the tiny line that separates the wistful from the insipid.
Both Loeb and Hatfield share the ignoble distinction of having hit singles from the "Reality Bites" soundtrack. But while Hatfield had a substantial indie history prior to the film, Loeb didn't even have an album before her song "Stay (I Miss You)" became the movie's theme. Instead, she had a friendship with star Ethan Hawke. A year after the single hit No. 1, Loeb released "Tail," her first album. While Hatfield's hook-filled bonbons have a ragged undertone that comes from passion and experience, Loeb's second album, indeed her entire career, feels nearly as prefab as the Spice Girls.
Hatfield often gets slagged by macho critics for her small voice and teen-diary lyrics, but she's shown impressive perseverance since her turn-of-the-decade days with the Boston band Blake Babies. The first song on "Please Do Not Disturb," "Sellout," sounds like a cry of frustration against a world that's ignored her while catapulting a crop of alt-rock nymphets to stardom. Her voice breaks with sarcastic anger on the chorus, "It's not a sellout if nobody buys it/ I can't complain 'cause nobody likes it."
Conversely, when Lisa Loeb twitters, "You just don't understand me/You just don't understand/And I want to be understood," it's as humorless and banal as an Alanis Morrisette refrain. Her melodies are catchy and her lyrics are suitably sad, but the whole thing is hollow. She doesn't help herself by stealing the beginnings of better songs. The first few bars of "Split Second" are identical to the beginning of the Smiths' "Panic." It prompted a spark of happy recognition before the irritating song kicked. I wanted to switch it off and pop in "Louder Than Bombs" instead.
Actually, Hatfield steals some openers as well. The start of "Sellout" is nearly identical to the first few moments of Veruca Salt's "Seether." But unlike "Split Second," "Sellout" is a great song, a charmingly self-deprecating complaint about obscurity. There's a similar lament in the grinding punk song "Give Me Some of That," with its bratty refrain, "If I had/some of what you had/I would be so, so fucking glad."
It's not just because she throws more amusing temper tantrums that Hatfield is the more appealing artist, though. The understated "Trying Not to Think About It," a lovely, fragile song about a friend who drowned, is impossibly poignant in a way that Loeb's sonic wallpaper can't touch. Strange that Hatfield should be complaining about her lack of success after 10 years and eight recordings, while Loeb already has had a No. 1 single, a Grammy nomination and a Brit award. Isn't it ironic? Don't you think?