Music Review: 'whitechocolatespaceegg'
”All modern revolutions,” Albert Camus once scribbled, ”have ended in a reinforcement of the state.” It’s unfortunate we weren’t able to witness the sight of Camus as a disciple of early- ’90s alternative rock, since he would have seen his own theory bearing particularly depressing fruit. For instance, he would have bought Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville and been attracted to its empowered-slacker mentality, its sexual bravado, its deceptively melodic lo-fi crunch, and the way it toyed flirtatiously with the conventions of the boy-centric world of indie rock. (As a man, he might not have completely related to Phair’s approach and might have found the album repetitious, but that’s another story.) Then he would have witnessed all the factors that made Phair an intriguing barometer of her time tossed into the corporate-rock meat grinder, emerging as Alanis Morissette, Meredith Brooks, Tracy Bonham, and others.
As braying became all the (female) rage, Phair herself was nowhere to be seen. After making an uneven, less saber-rattling follow-up (1994’s Whip-Smart), she married and had a child, resulting in something of a backlash: If she was such a free-living, freewheeling feminist, the argument went, why was she settling for settling down? The question lingers over whitechocolatespaceegg, the album that marks the end of Phair’s lengthy hiatus. But it’s hardly the only ground for discussion. To wit: Is there life after the intentionally primitive, basement-studio ambiance of lo-fi (especially since the genre has played itself out)? And now that the revolution has been televised, albeit on MTV, what’s left for Phair to accomplish?
For one thing, to make better records, which she’s done with the much-delayed whitechocolatespaceegg. Recorded over the course of several years with different producers (including Phair cohort Brad Wood and longtime R.E.M. collaborator Scott Litt), the album features a subtle, but striking, sonic overhaul. Phair and company have cranked up the guitars and drums without becoming hammy or contrived. The railroad-car chug of ”Baby Got Going” and the taut rock grooves 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. ”Uncle Alvarez” uses a friend’s family portrait as a strained metaphor for a fraudulent life, but the song’s airy vibe and noodly piano stay with you. The proudly careerist ”S—loads of Money” is indie cabaret rock, complete with beautifully woozy accordion. Even her occasionally meandering melodies, like the space-rock drone of the title track and the lilting insecurity-blanket ode ”Perfect World,” benefit from arrangements that glue the songs together rather than let them flutter away in the wind.
On the subject of her own fluttering, no one will ever call Phair a vocal virtuoso; the ordinariness of her voice can wear thin over the course of an album. But in keeping with the upgraded (but never slick) sonics, she sounds stronger and more nuanced. She’s also ditched cheap-trick shock value for language that feels like thoughtful dinner conversation or an intimate E-mail exchange. In one of the best tracks, ”Polyester Bride,” the lonely, single narrator bemoans her fate to her bartender pal, who offers caustic responses in return (”He said, ‘You’re lucky to even know me/You’re lucky to be alive”’). Like most of the album, the song has nothing to do with wedded bliss or child rearing, but it doesn’t seem any less authentic or autobiographical.
At the beginning of the summer, when it was announced that Phair would partake in the Lilith Fair tour, the news was mildly shocking. Five years ago, the thought of her sharing the stage with the Indigo Girls was unimaginable: exile in girlville, anyone? After hearing whitechocolatespaceegg, the decision makes more sense. Even when the music stomps around and Phair turns cheeky, she is, at heart, something of a sentimentalist. And whether she’s daydreaming about a crush (”Fantasize”) or in need of physical satisfaction (”Ride”), she’s exhilarated yet unremittingly cautious and cerebral. Ultimately, she’s closer in spirit to brainiac singer-songwriters like Paul Simon or Joni Mitchell than to any of the idiosyncratic bands with whom she shares a record label. (In ”Perfect World,” the moment when she adds her own pretty double-tracked harmony is nothing if not Phair & Garfunkel.) It’s not a fashionable move, and it isn’t likely to reignite a portion of the world, especially one overtaken with divas, sampling, and electronic burps. But it’s a small triumph of growth and musical adulthood — a modest, if not modern, revolution. A-