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Juliana Hatfield

Once the princess of alternative pop in the days before Nirvana, Juliana Hatfield has struggled for more than a decade to come up with the goods that would define her solo career. Admittedly, this was no easy task, given that her early band, Blake Babies, was so damn good. But a series of overproduced efforts for Atlantic and some lukewarm blasts of indie-rock left some critics wondering if it was even possible for Hatfield to return to Rockmaidenform.

The princess has more than a few miles on her now, and Hatfield wears them well. With her new album, Made in China, she has dropped the hack production and whittled her songs down to the two-minute mark. Listening to these 12 songs for the first time, I was struck by how confident she sounds, not just vocally, but also in her toughened-up guitar work. Add to that her seemingly newfound ability to play drums, and you've got a sonic weapon disguised as a rocker grrrl.

How strong is Made in China? Well, the one-two-three punch of "New Waif," "What Do I Care," and "Stay Awake" rattled the dishes in my cupboard, leaving me no choice but to max out the stereo volume. And lyrically, Hatfield is just as pissed as she's always been. But Hatfield has always excelled at confession, as she does in the acoustic ballad "Hole in the Sky." When she sings "I feel it inside / What isn't there / The children are lost / We can't find them anywhere," the thwarted dreams of youth flicker for a moment before disappearing into the haze of office jobs. It's a powerful moment in a delicate yet deadly album.

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