?All modern revolutions,? wrote Albert Camus, ?have ended in a reinforcement of the state.? Too bad Camus didn?t grow up as a disciple of the ?90s alt-rock world. He would have been attracted to Liz Phair?s “Exile in Guyville” for its empowered-slacker mentality, its sexual bravado, and the new dimensions it brought to boy-centric indie rock. Then he would have witnessed all those elements tossed into the corporate-rock meat grinder, emerging as Alanis Morissette, Meredith Brooks, and Tracy Bonham.
And what of Phair? After releasing a less saber-rattling followup (1994?s “Whip-Smart”), she married and had a baby, and a small backlash ensued: If she was such a free-living feminist, the argument went, why was she settling for settling down? The question lingers over “Whitechocolatespaceegg,” which marks the end of her hiatus. But it?s hardly the only ground for discussion. Is there life after the primitive, basement-studio ambience of lo-fi? And now that the revolution has been televised on MTV, what?s left for Phair to accomplish?
For one thing, to make better records. Recorded over the course of several years, the album pumps up the volume without becoming hammy. The railroad-car chug of ?Baby Got Going? and the taut groove of ?Johnny Feelgood? (about an obsession with a beau who is either physically or emotionally abusive?call it “Ally McRock”) confirm what was missing from “Whip-Smart”: measly things like hooks and dynamics. Phair?s deadpan-ordinary voice is stronger and more nuanced, and she?s ditched shock value for language that feels like an intimate email exchange. In ?Polyester Bride,? the lonely, single narrator bemoans her fate to her bartender pal, who offers caustic responses in return.
Call her the Lilith-ready Phair: Whether she?s daydreaming about a crush (?Fantasize?) or in need of physical satisfaction (?Ride?), she?s exhilarated yet unremittingly cautious, closer in spirit to brainiac singer-songwriters like Paul Simon or Joni Mitchell. It?s not a fashionable move, nor is it likely to ignite a world overtaken with divas, sampling, and electronic burps. But it?s a small triumph of growth and musical adulthood — a modest, if not modern, revolution.