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Liz Phair's new album continues sexual assertiveness


Liz Phair.

Matador/Atlantic Records.

By Scott Deskin
Arts Editor

Liz Phair's career is probably as close to being on the fast-track of up-and-coming "alternative" rock acts as one could hope for. Phair's debut album, Exile in Guyville, was released last year to moderately good sales and - more importantly - wildly enthusiastic critical acclaim. Ostensibly a sharp reply to the Rolling Stones' masterwork Exile on Main Street (1972), Guyville's 18 tracks proudly displayed Phair's unabashed sexual and emotional openness with the male subjects of her songs.

After a year of stage-fright from touring, media exposure, and time to soak in her success, Liz Phair releases Whip-Smart, a surprisingly succinct and coherent follow-up to Guyville. Although it lacks some of the grand, sweeping concept that the prior album had borrowed from its male-dominated, classic-rock basis, her new album breaks off into new directions, reasserting female sexual longings without succumbing to their banalities.

Both albums have a sound that is simultaneously unremarkable and refreshing; as such, both albums are eminently listenable, because Phair has a flair for the melodic pop hook. It's easy to dismiss Whip-Smart's batch of songs at first listen because they sound so familiar, and perhaps a bit comforting, in relation to the collective memory of the school of popular music. Then the lyrics hit you. It's not just that Phair is willing to drop the occasional expletive into her dialogue with the listener, just to make sure she's not misunderstood; but in each song she tells a little story whose context conjures up a word or a phrase that defies conversational limits.

Phair's disaffected, ambivalent delivery of the story in the album's first song, "Chopsticks," makes one wonder what's really going on in her head: A musical variation on a familiar nursery-school tune, it plainly describes the unfolding evening of a sexual encounter. Phair throws her ball of confusion and emotional angst at the listener in hopes of evoking confusion (and perhaps arousal). Like other female vocalists before her (new-wave artists Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders come to mind), Phair's sexual and emotional candor brings us up close with the sexual content of her songs, rather than couching sex in the overused clichs of love.

On Exile in Guyville, Phair tied her songs to the challenge of life and love in a male-dominated (sexual and musical) world. Her new album may at first seem like a retreat from this premise, for many of her songs draw heavily from simple cultural texts, like nursery school rhymes ("Dogs of L.A." and "Whip-Smart") or rock-poet fantasy ("Supernova" and "X-Ray Man"). However, each song represents another facet of Phair's fascination with the opposite sex, whether it be the slick wordplay of the MTV-hitbound "Supernova" ("Your lips are sweet and slippery like a cherub's bare wet ass") or the tender multi-tracked vocals on "Nashville" ("I won't decorate my love"). The sentiments that Phair delivers vary widely from song to song, but each idea coheres around the central theme of independence and respect.

The subdued production, mixed and engineered by band members Brad Wood (bass and drums) and John Henderson (guitar), does credit to Phair's material. The instrumentals are clear and tangible enough to sustain the rhythm, but not able overpower Phair's thin and technically unremarkable voice. Yet, Whip-Smart boasts the same lyrical directness as its predecessor that precludes grandiose vocal delivery or grotesque sexual posturing.

The album carries over many of the same ideas that permeated the concept of her debut, but is often subdued by its reluctance to take on another lofty concept, to directly confront the problematic male-female relationship. It's also sure to earn comparisons to Exile in Guyville, which is the less refined and more impressive album. Therefore, it's a solid transitional effort, a release issued the year after Liz Phair's sexual revolution. Perhaps her next album will find her in unabashed, unapologetic form. Still, it's a recommended purchase for anyone who loved her first album and, better still, for those who still take their romantic rock 'n' roll cues from Journey and Whitesnake.