Make no mistake: Liz Phair is one clever liberal-arts college grad. Her debut album, last year’s Exile in Guyville, was supposedly a young woman’s retort to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. Whip-Smart (Matador/Atlantic), a follow- up as weightily anticipated as the revised health-care bill, kicks off with the familiar two-finger piano plinking of the music-school standard ”Chopsticks,” but with lyrics that would probably turn the hair of music teachers schoolmarm-gray. ”He said he liked to do it backwards,” Phair murmurs in her zonked-out talk-song voice, ”I said that was fine with me/That way we can f — – and watch TV.”
”Chopsticks” picks up where the odes to oral sex and lousy roommates of Exile in Guyville left off. With its take-me-seriously stance and Phair’s own image- the cute kid sister, and what a mouth on her!-that album was burdened with critic-hubris phrases like ”extraordinary” and won the coveted Village Voice critics’ poll as album of the year. For those who heard Exile as a disarmingly direct and melodic (if self-indulgent) record that said more about Gen-Xers than any newsmagazine cover, Whip-smart is basically the same story: easy to respect for its intelligence and low-fi rock (it’s not, thank God, corporate grunge-by-numbers), yet at times so damn passive and self-conscious that it’s easier to admire than fall in love with.
Its title and opening song notwithstanding, Whip-smart is less obsessed with kinky pleasures than with the mental games and indecisiveness that lead up to them. Phair ponders whether she needs a ”man of action” in ”Support System,” while deciding to pick up and ”Go West” because of another (”I’m not looking forward to missing you/But I must have something better to do”). She muses even further in the title song, wondering about having a child and what she will tell the kid about her wild life. Phair’s eye for short-story-like detail, the kind that made you lean toward the speakers in Exile, comes out best in ”Jealousy.” Finding a drawerful of photos of her current beau’s exes, she can’t decide whether to look: ”I can’t believe you had a life before me,” she simmers, ”I can’t believe they let you roam around free.” Phair often sings in the blank-generation monotone of someone who wandered into the studio after watching a Brady Bunch marathon on cable, but here, at least, she sounds as pissed off as her lyrics, and the effect is spellbinding.
With its snarly, bump-and-grind guitars, ”Jealousy,” like much of Whip- smart, is more musically fleshed out than the garage-level tracks of Exile. Given a sharp hook and a springy cluster of guitars and drums around her, her music does crack like a whip. ”Supernova,” wherein she finds herself giving in to a man’s physical appeal and volcanic sexual prowess, is a real grabber, down to the simple, effective use of a tambourine on its chorus. At other times, Whip-smart reveals Phair as an alternative-rock variation of the time- honored singer-songwriter. The swooping ”Dogs of L.A.” has the airy, open- guitar-tuning quality of Joni Mitchell circa her Hejira period.
The record meanders an equal number of times, too. Without a strong reason to be angered or analytical, Phair’s muse wanders, and so do her melodies. (Few of the ballads here are as gripping as Exile‘s ode to cunnilingus, ”Glory.”) Elsewhere, she has a fondness for the cutesy, her stories can be too vague, and someone should tell her that, as with the lamer rap records, the supposed shock value of saying ”f — -” wears thin after the third consecutive song. At worst, Phair is a cliche of the slacker generation-self- absorbed, career-minded (while pretending not to be), a privileged kid playing at being bohemian.
Ironically, given all the analysis and second-guessing in her songs, Whip-smart may be too thoughtful for its own good; it rarely grabs you by the collar. Attribute part of that to Phair’s deadpan voice, but also to the production. Phair and her coproducer, drummer Brad Wood, keep the music deliberately low-rent, probably for that all-important indie-rock street credibility. You leave Whip-smart wondering what a few dollops of actual production could add to Phair’s levelheaded life chronicles. She’s unquestionably talented, and she’s clearly going places, but the one holding Liz Phair back isn’t some jerk in guyville. It’s her own overly smart self. B