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Liz Phair’s new album, Whip-Smart, due out sometime in September, is an awesome pop consolidation for the Wicker Park songwriter. The paradigm for today’s brash, acclaimed genius of the year is to go out hunting for new territory to invade when all is not yet firmed up on the home front. People like Terence Trent D’Arby and Sinead O’Connor, for instance, record one well-received album and then descend into a morass of charity shows, unsuccessful reaches, and lots of artistic angst before burping up a concept record after three or four years. Phair, by contrast, seemed to feel that her most pressing need was to write more killer songs. Whip-Smart lacks Exile in Guyville’s audacious contextualization, its epic sprawl, its nerviness and scope. But it has other things. Higher highs for one–songs like “Super Nova,” “Support System,” “Whip-Smart,” and “May Queen” are head-snapping compositions of pop subversiveness. Lower lows, too: I’m not sure what “Crater Lake,” “Nashville,” and “Alice Springs” are supposed to be about, and the song settings aren’t interesting enough to make you care. But the debut’s obsessive rock ‘n’ roll kaleidoscope–baroque improvisations on, as Phair put it, “me, my guitar, and a feel”–carries over, as does her giddily protean voice, confrontational intellectualisms, and nonpareil musicality.
On Whip-Smart there’s less of the adolescent emotional prolixity that marked Phair’s earlier work. The most arresting aspect of Exile in Guyville was her insistence on saying something, whether that something was a devastating gender critique or elaborate psychological hairsplitting. While the predilection remains, on the whole she essays slimmed-down, clearer, slightly more conventional statements on the new album; aside from an opening trilogy of songs with the word “fuck” in them she sensibly eschews the shock-the-bourgeoisie mentality of a Madonna or a Sinead O’Connor in favor of classic rock tunesmithing.
The record begins with “Chopsticks,” a singsong Phairy tale about romantic disaffection, and then slams into “Super Nova,” a wild, wah-wahed hot-and-wet rocker that turns Dylan’s “Wedding Song” into a raging exposition of distaff carnality:
Your kisses are as wicked as an M16
And you fuck like a volcano
And you’re everything to me
“Support System” contains a bevy of killer hooks and a charming olio of overlayed double-tracked vocals; the song is a trademark Phair analysis of a relationship’s sexual politics. “X-Ray Man” is a sultry rave-up, but ultimately it’s dry and rather uninteresting. On Guyville the filler was ameliorated by its role in Phair’s ambitious recasting of Exile on Main St. Here the filler’s just filler.
“Nashville” is a low-voiced ballad that may or may not be a sarcastic male profile a la Guyville’s “Soap Star Joe”; it ends with her intoning the words “You gotta have fear in your heart” over an unintelligible collage of voices. “Shane” starts out as an atmospheric morass, out of which emerge a striking song structure and a plangent melody. “Go West,” with its charming beat and lulling guitar change-ups, seems merely a slight bit of riffing on the title cliche until Phair displays her sarcastic bite, perhaps directed at those who’ve been second-guessing her career:
I’m looking forward for somebody to do
My thinking for me till I come to
The state line highway sign says you
Have gone west, young man.
On what in the old days would have been called the album’s second side, “Cinco de Mayo” features Phair’s coproducer and drummer Brad Wood doing one of his Charlie Watts imitations. “Dogs of L.A.” is a moody plaint and one of Phair’s most uncompelling lyrical attempts. “Whip-Smart” is a nursery rhyme, really (an early title for the album was Jump Rope Songs), marked by her most irresistible chorus, a Beatles-esque instrumental break, and a thoroughly absurd corps of chirpy percussion tracks and bird sounds. If Phair goes Top 40, this song will be the catalyst.
“Jealousy” is a thumping rock track with a set of creative but disappointingly one-dimensional lyrics expounding on the title theme. “Crater Lake” is slow and ponderous, with vocals that sound like Phair’s singing through a megaphone and lines like “Dynamite in a mailbox / Doesn’t smoke before it blows.” “Alice Lake” is a ballad, short and elegantly impenetrable. The album’s closer, “May Queen,” perhaps Phair’s most acerbic attack yet on the masculine psyche, also features perhaps her most thrilling hooks and most mature vocal performance.
The album displays this or that production coup–the chirpy tracks underlying “Whip-Smart,” the mad, whistled chorus and zany synthesizers on “Support System,” the gorgeous sonic setting for the rising chords that begin “May Queen”–but retains the laconically recorded guitar tracks and low-budget charm that Wood gave her first album. Though the album has striking commercial potential, Phair most definitely hasn’t broken any new ground. But she has made a record almost as good as Exile in Guyville, and no one else I can think of has done that recently.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brad Miller.