Whitechocolate What?

Liz Phair
whitechocolatespaceegg
(Matador)

Gun Shy
One of rock's most nagging problems is the negative self-selection of honest rock stars. It doesn't pay, financially, socially, or cosmically. The stars we think are the most forthright -- the Michael Stipes, the Thurston Moores -- are really the ones most canny at playing the game; they recite a seemingly sincere shtick night after night on tour and proffer carefully placed bits of defiance on MTV. Artists who recoil at such falsity come across as sullen or shrill or self-righteous, and can end up as targets. Eddie Vedder and Sinead O'Connor are the two most recent prime examples. The derailed career of Liz Phair is a close third.

Phair would be a major star -- rather than the failed oddity she is -- if during her 1993 celebrity she'd learned to pout sexily for the hot videomaker of the day, to tour coherently, and to aggressively play the PR game with MTV and the press. For a variety of reasons, ranging from integrity to genuine physical discomfort, she didn't do any of those things. Her position is compounded by problems of her own making, of course -- like Paul Westerberg she's obsessed with indie purity, and can twist herself into a pretzel because of it. And like the star she wants to be, Phair has the problems stars tend to have: She wants things both ways; is sometimes a little too concerned about seeming in control; and isn't above playing the diva.

All of this combines for the crisis of the too-self-conscious rock star. Whitechocolatespaceegg, her third full album, is merely the latest manifestation of the problem. Like her still-powerful 1993 debut, Exile in Guyville, part of it is audacious, mesmerizing, dizzying in its musicality, and unnerving in its frankness. At the same time, like much of her output since (Whip-Smart, the Juvenilia EP, and various soundtrack contributions), it's ragged, unfinished, superficial, inconsistent, and, at its worst, bloodless. Exile, remember, was a powerful look at the problem with boys, girls, and (not least) Liz Phair. Having got those concerns out, Phair's lost focus. There are a couple of important songs and a few riveting choruses on whitechocolatespaceegg, but overwhelmingly there are uninteresting melodies, a tendency to make pompous pronouncements, and the aural confusion provided by too many producers (Scott Litt, Brad Wood, and Phair herself) in too many different sessions. (Most of the record was mixed by Tom Lord-Alge for some measure of sonic consistency.)

Along the way there are moments. "Perfect World," a quiet meditation on identity and relationships -- complete with strings -- dazzles with its assurance and sound. (It's the most successful of the tracks Phair recorded with R.E.M. producer Litt.) The next song, "Johnny Feelgood," stars a brutal cousin of Exile's "Johnny Sunshine": "He knocked me down/ Started draggin' me around." (Mischievously, Phair ends the chorus with, "And I liked it.") The closing "Girls' Room," a singsongy bit of metaphysical nostalgia, and "What Makes You Happy," whose brassy, '60s-pop sound frames a very funny mother-daughter dialogue, remind you of Phair's unerring ear for suburban patois.

Too much of the rest is second-rate. "Big Tall Man," with its spoken verses, sounds like bad performance art. As on Whip-Smart, what in earlier times would have been called Side 2 is barren. "Shitloads of Money," a revision of an early, pre-Exile song, is as strident and silly, in its own vulgar, pretentious way, as anything Jewel or Fiona Apple has come up with recently. And I blush to relate that on "Baby Got Going," for which Litt provided the music, Phair attempts to boogie.

More serious are the ambitious flops. The bitter "Go on Ahead" for all we know may be a naked portrait from her own life as a wife and mother; but the melody and production aren't alluring enough to make us care. Perhaps the record's most invidious failure is "Polyester Bride," a keening, soaring song that in many ways features Phair at her giddy best: the low, off-pitch conversationality of the singing; her innate feel for rock structures, providing bursting melodies and unexpected bridges and codas; and her canny ability to use old-fashioned boy-rock conventions -- like the stately guitar change-up that begins it -- for her own subversive ends. But it's all ruined by the lyrics, about a flirtatious bartender whom the singer's "lucky to know." There's not enough irony in Phair's performance to make it work as a character study, if that's what it's supposed to be. She just sounds like another hipster name-checking her gang at the local club to keep her street cred.

Pop is harder than it looks; there's no rule that says the artists most capable of creating immortal music will also have the ruthlessness to maintain themselves in the spotlight. One of the most poignant aspects of Phair's current position is that she seems to be happy: She's married and has a kid and by most accounts is one of the few people not at all concerned with the state of her career. What fans and critics want, of course, is the blood on the tracks; the pain and desire that create exiles, in Guyville and on Main Street. It's possible that Phair looked at the price, and refused to pay it.

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