It’s unsettlingly and increasingly common in current rock “criticism” to read reviews that are simply cut-and-paste jobs taken from the press kits that accompany promotional copies of albums. Why bother to engage the material for yourself, when the publicists have already come up with some clever puns and pull-quotes for you, which, most of the time, can be spun into either a positive or negative review of equally limited magnitude. It’s a somewhat rare and critically messy occurrence, however, for an artist to contribute a full-on essay to her own press kit. And while artist’s intentionality is the bane of true criticism, Juliana Hatfield’s comments on her latest album, Made In China (“I am a confused, sloppy, childish, conflicted mess,” she says), don’t speak to her intentions for the album so much as to the album’s actual quality, making them especially difficult to ignore. Made In China is a confused, sloppy, childish, conflicted mess, so if Hatfield’s words are to be taken at face value, the album is nonetheless a remarkably astute, accurate statement of artistic identity. It’s a mess, all right, but it’s a mess that nonetheless compels for its immediacy.
Recorded quickly for Hatfield’s own label, Made In China is the most raw, naked (and not just for the strategically cropped photo of her torso on the front cover or the bathtub shot in the liner notes) album of Hatfield’s career. The results of this tossed-off lo-fi aesthetic are mixed. The songs that clock in under three minutes fare better than the longer cuts, as Hatfield and her band crank out some killer, hard-rocking three-chord structures before Hatfield’s juvenile lyrics (“You want ice cream and bags of chips and chocolate and blood and guts and drugs and sex and cigarettes” from “My Pet Lion” could kill nearly any album, but then she spends the last two full minutes of album-closing “Send Money” whining, “If you want to pray for me/Tell God to send me some money/Save yourself,” and those are two of the longest minutes in the history of recorded sound) get in the way. And Hatfield’s vocals—especially on the fine-otherwise “What Do I Care”—make a good case for ProTools. On the title track, Hatfield addresses her lack of marketability and her it-girl past with the kind of insight that the bulk of the album lacks, suggesting that, were she to put in a more concerted effort, she could come up with an album that wouldn’t need a press kit supplement to make a cogent point.