Juliana Hatfield shows such a love for the source material on what is essentially a tribute/covers album that the songs seem like they were written for her. She’s spoken at length about her love for Olivia Newton-John’s records, and it shows – the song selection here is fantastic, and what she does with the originals is a complete revelation.
For example, Hatfield breaks out the greasepaint to turn the post-disco funky strut of “Totally Hot” into a KISS-styled arena-metal monolith – the riff becomes monstrous in her hands, and the loose, muscular beat is expertly played for maximum power.
Arguably the most successful song on this collection, “Physical”, here becomes a pop rock powerhouse that evokes (unbelievably) both the demented madness of The B52s and the confident, playful sexuality of Madonna. The guitar solo is also a thing of beauty. The Hallowe’en-costume reinventions continue on “Dancin’ Round and Round”, which transforms the muted heartbreak of the original into a kind of punked-up Americana anthem – it’s also the closest track to what Juliana does on her own records.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, the ballads are tender and loving. Hatfield knows when to rock, and when to swoon. The closest song to the original on this collection is “Suspended in Time”, which is an ABBA-styled ballad from the Xanadu soundtrack. The country stylings of “Please Mr. Please” sheds a light on the vast majority of Newton-John’s career being in country music.
The beauty of this album is in its simplicity. It’s made with love, and an exuberance that even the most jaded listeners can’t help but notice. It also draws attention back to the source – and further proves the essential songwriting hidden in plain view in Olivia Newton-John’s largely forgotten musical career. Rather than just the girl from Grease, Newton-John forged one of the most successful careers in music history, and rather than being a simple tribute, Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John is a stunning addition to the story of both musicians. Thankfully, there are hundreds of songs left for Hatfield to do on Part II.