Natalie Imbruglia; White Lilies Island
If and when FOX creates That ’90s Show, here’s one episode I’m already envisioning. The female characters decide to have one of those sitcom-style girls’ nights out. Cut to the actresses at a Lilith Fair concert, complete with cutesy jokes about incense and Jewel’s hair conditioner. On cue, the studio audience laughs at the seemingly absurd conceit: women with acoustic guitars and out-front feelings as the most in-demand ticket around!
Such fantasies are prompted by the release of albums by three women who loomed large to fairly large during the Lilith era. Of Alanis Morissette, Natalie Imbruglia, and Lisa Loeb, only Loeb participated in that tour. But Loeb’s ”Stay,” Imbruglia’s ”Torn,” and, of course, Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill are frozen-in-time mementos of that period — one that, in these dancing-queen Days of Britney, seems much further away than five years.
No one seems to know that better than Morissette, who finds herself in search of a comeback after the public was far less taken with Jagged’s two follow-ups. Indicating either anger-management issues or biz-savvy calculation, Under Rug Swept marks a return to the same type of diatribes against selfish, commitment-phobic louts that first made her the heroine of the embittered-ex set. ”Hands Clean” could even be seen as a sequel to ”You Oughta Know,” as Morissette sings, ”We’ll fast forward to a few years later/And no one knows except the both of us.” (It’s hard to say what’s more disturbing: speculation that the song is about a sexual attack or Morissette fueling the controversy with coy responses.)
Thankfully, Morissette has opted not to work with producer Glen Ballard, and that single (produced, like the album, by the singer herself) shows the decision paid off. The track’s sinuous groove avoids the bombast that sank 1998’s Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie. Parts of Under Rug Swept are even understated, with Morissette’s nasal bray held mostly in check.
But the album’s garbled title is also preparation for some of the clumsiest lyrics to be heard on a pop record in years. ”I embrace you for your faith in the face of adversarial forces that I represent” may be an appropriate assessment of a relationship, but it’s not a chorus. The songs are riddled with such overwritten Psych 101 ruminations. ”Dear momma’s boy/I know you’ve had your butt licked by your mother,” she starts a song that, for those who may miss the subtlety, is titled ”Narcissus.” Morissette then undercuts such assertiveness with other tracks in which she crumbles completely at the mere sight of a former boyfriend, leaving listeners more confused than, one imagines, the men she dates. ”I’m 13 again/Am I 13 for good?” she asks herself in ”So Unsexy,” and one has good reason to answer ”yes.”
As it was on ”Stay” and her irresistible second hit, ”I Do,” Loeb’s strength is her clarity and simplicity. When built around her voice and guitar, her songs have an appealing, conversational intimacy. She’s adept at a blend of singer-songwriter braininess and pop-single bubble, and she continues to do that on the best tracks on Cake and Pie, ”Someone You Should Know” and ”The Way It Really Is”; this is one folkie who knows the power of an anthemic chorus. Overfrenetic guitar whiz (and beau) Dweezil Zappa adds electric oomph here and there; Loeb even rocks, mildly, on ”Too Fast Driving.” But Cake and Pie also suffers from the preciousness and antiseptic production that hampered Loeb in the past.
Imbruglia, the former Aussie soap opera actress-turned-pop star, is fiercely determined to prove she’s no one-VH1-smash wonder. For her second album, White Lilies Island (due March 5), she’s gone so far as to have a hand in writing her own songs (”Torn,” after all, was a cover). Ordinarily, this strategy is a formula for disaster, but Imbruglia knows something about formula. The disc continues in the same vein of agreeable pop-radio fodder as ”Torn,” with an all-new group of distraught romantics and connection seekers singing creamy choruses. ”Wrong Impression,” the first single, is the best and hookiest of them, followed by the swirling tumble of ”That Day” and a power ballad here or there, like ”Do You Love.” Despite Imbruglia’s big, pouty voice, it’s all perfectly pleasant and quickly forgotten; she’s Karen Carpenter with cargo pants, but without the heartbreaking underlying pain. In her way, Imbruglia carries on the do-it-herself values of the Lilith Fair era. But it makes you wonder if merely fair Lilith pop is the legacy Sarah McLachlan had in mind all those years ago.