Artist: Liz Phair                                   Release Date: April 1994
Label: Matador Records                       Running time: 42 min.

Featuring:

Brad Wood - Drums, Percussion, Chimes, Bass, Dub Guitar
Casey Rice - Guitar
John Henderson - Guitar
Liz Phair - Guitar, Vocals, Synth, Piano
~:~
Engineered by Brad Wood and Casey Rice.
Mastered Roger Seibel.
Special thanks to Malcolm Maclaren for chorus to 'Whip-smart'.
All songs recorded, Chicago and Nassau, February 1994.
Musical Context :

      Early 1994. The heady Clinton years. Cobain still knocking about, albeit less ubiquitously than in years before, still betwixt snarls and snickers. The next Big Thing had, for a brief moment, quieted to a short spell of introspection. A kind of continent-wide aesthetic lull. Of course, this was a much different kind of quiet, for a very different kind of world. For one thing, in 1994, a break in the cultural action usually meant you picked up a thick paper publication (called 'the magazine') or switched on 'the radio'. The computer was still just something you mostly played video games on (or maybe typed up a term paper now and then, given Lynx was still the web browser of choice, what little of the Web there was). Back then, music news still traveled the slow, old roads - small press mail-order zines, low-wattage college radio, late night public broadcasting – but critical consensus seemed to have settled one thing: for the moment, the ladies had the floor. The raw, punkt-up abrasion of Lunachicks, Hole and L7 had given way to more refined voices : very strong debuts or follow-up albums in the previous year, from Polly Jean Harvey, Belly, Helium, Lisa Germano, Juliana Hatfield, Tori Amos, Kristen Hersh, Velocity Girl, Madder Rose and The Breeders (just to name a few), had all demonstrated serious musical range.
      Into this arena, Liz Phair found herself tossed, offering a follow-up to her massively acclaimed debut, Exile in Guyville. By no means an easy task. That had been a critic’s wet dream - shy but serious guys in chunky glasses across the Western world had stumbled over their own thesauri in a rush for sufficiently exuberant praise. But, alas for Liz, her second album was (oh death knell of death knells) different. Whip-smart was not 'Exile…', it was something else, and with less sex – pulling away in fact from just quirky into terrain more akin at points to weird. As nine out of ten music critics will attest, in music as in all things, patience for weirdness runs pretty thin when you remove the sex. The fact it was actually as great a record, with arguably better melodies and stronger, more creative song-writing, went by the bye. Which was nice actually for those of us who thought it swell – better that the masses push off for other shores

What’s it sound like though?

      Imagine a late 80s/early 90s collection of shorts, each centering on a different female character and shot (some in b/w, some in 16mm, some in pixelvision) by a different, kind-of-undiscovered director (Todd Haynes, Hal Hartley, maybe even an Adrian Tomine cartoon) but each acted out immaculately by a bright, funny, sharp-as-a-tack actress rolling easily through everyday, real-life dilemmas. Now imagine that fictional flick had a perfectly tailored, amazingly catchy soundtrack. That's this record.

Say, for the sake of argument, I love the record? What else might I try?

      If you like the quieter grativas of a song like Chopsticks, I would think Cynthia Dall’s Sound Restores Young Men (Drag City, September 2002) or better yet her untitled ’97 collaboration with Bill Callaghan would really strike you. Either that or Under the Pink. If, on the other hand, you like the kick & whistle of Support System, I’d think the rock out of the early Helium might get you going. X-ray Man has a definite P.J. Harvey vibe, ca. Is This Desire?, whereas Shane is cleverly whispered and coolly arranged, as much so as anything off Rid of Me. Go West and Cinco De Mayo have surely got the same bitter-sweet ambience of Madder Rose’s Panic On, Aimee Mann’s Whatever or the Throwing Muses' The Real Ramona. If you're looking to pick up on Liz Phair’s influences (early 80s teen that she was), listening pretty closely to the record, I’d think you’d need to get Learning to Crawl (1983, came out when Phair was 16), You’re Living All Over Me (would’ve been 20) and Sonic Youth’s Sister (21) – Phair was, after all, attending art college at that same time and would be about to start meandering towards songwriting…three years later, after slipping a friend of hers’ (in Come) a couple of demos (recorded as just 'Girlysound') she was signed to Matador Records. However, not being privy to her record collection, those are just educated guesses.

The Songs:
1. Chopsticks : A punch-in-the-gut opener on coldly modern sexuality, rattled off in meek monotone, this one plays like a scene from a nasty short story. It’s so Raymond Carver, Phair herself even brings up the gray paperback light. The childlike melody in echoing piano, and a brief discussion on playing jacks, wrapped up in a post-coital cigarette, comes off exceedingly creepy and ends with the kicker last line, "...cause secretly I’m timid".1 As effective a two minute song as you're likely to hear, and bonus points to her for picking a real frowner to kick off the record.
2. Supernova : The invariable, inescapable single which generally stands for the whole album in most folks' minds, and no question, while highly rocking, it is also absolutely the worst song on the record – "Your kisses are as wicked as an M-16 / you fuck like a volcano and you’re everything to me..." - guess it had a nice video though…
3. Support System : The electronic doodling, girl scout troupe whistling and 'toughen up' chorus all do nice things here.
4. X-Ray Man : Could be an Amos or PJ track, it's so weirdly cloying - once the tune finds a pace, she leaves the station in a bang. A nicely minimal, discomfortingly intimate confrontation of the male gaze, almost as if she was smirking knowlingly back at all the oogle-prone fans who dug her so much before.
5. Shane : A sharp and subtle low-fi deliberation on some paranoid, hipster derelict, it’s difficult to tell whether his or Phair’s words make up the litany which ends the song, repeated over a TV babble of dialogue: "You gotta have fear in your heart…"
6. Nashville : A fantastic slacker vignette, up there with the best Modest Mouse songs, tackling that same horizon of meaningless work and meaningless play each of us surveys each morning. All the youthful worry and woe of trying to be someone, and yet accomplish something, at the same time compressed into a few minutes. And with one positively beatific chorus.
7. Go West : My favorite track on the record for sure, another rough and tumble, cool kid moment : "And it feels like I've got something to prove /But in some ways it's just something to do" – with all the requisite nods to skipping town, driving cross-country, getting fed up and taking off – "I’m not looking forward to missing you / but I must have something better to do…" - at one time or another, we’ve all been there, and Phair here nails that combined sense of annoyance and obviousness, pummeled out like the keyboard grind or the rattling bass-line.
8. Cinco de Mayo : Rollicking, swaggering, punch-drunk bravado, a sort of revamped 90s update of 'Middle of the Road' or 'My City was Gone'…
9. Dogs of L.A. : Clever, early nineties vignettes "…I watch the Star Trek crew / with my Beatle boots & my Subaru…" interwoven into a straight-up nostalgic ballad to a hometown pal left regrettably behind.
10. Whip-Smart : Cassandra-like wisdom for a baby son, who, incidentally came along just as whitechocolatespaceegg was wrapped up.
11. Jealousy : Precisely penned by Phair, this one nicely elaborates the oft irrational teeth-gnashing to which anyone in love will, at one time or another, invariably succumb – "…I can’t believe you had a life before me / I can’t believe they let you run around free…" – while the melody clips along, cantering to and fro, at a guitar-propelled gallop. What would have been a strong 2nd single, surely. However, most record reviewers had decamped by this point in the album. After all, while a concept album with sex appeal2 packed them in (for the debut), to be blunt, interest in a wry female musical POV can only be sustained for so long among critical jet-set.3
12. Crater Lake : A good indicator of the general, unpretentious strength of the songwriting here – "…all the tears, in four tiny years / look at me, I’m frightening my friends…" – which kind of reminds me about the appeal of Phair’s work in general, that they are stories filled with all the sort of nonsense most of us struggle to deal with or duck. Wild rumors, disappointing parties, unlooked for grudges and wanton lust all flicker by us, while we succumb constantly to all the requisite vices to dissuade us from realizing this, in fact, maybe as good as it gets.
13. Alice Springs : hmm.
14. May Queen : Amazing finisher, as nails-tough, super-cool and brilliantly observant as anything on the first LP – "You were miles above me, girls in your arms / You could've planted a farm, all of them hayseeds" – and in fact more melodic and well-paced than most of the first side on Exile (I mean take a another listen to 6'1" or Glory; 2nd side, of course, I'll whisper not even a word against...)

1Actually, not so secretly: plenty of people, fans and critics alike, were pretty jarred, even scandalized, when Phair toured for the first record and exhibited, despite the quality of the lyrics, a tendency to extreme, sometime debilitating stage fright. But all that head-strong, super-tough attitude, they thought? It couldn't possibly all be simple fiction? Imagine, an artist, using a pretend voice or persona. As it turned out, to the disappointment of many, Phair was about as sincerely sexual as, say, Cindy Sherman...
2 A blow-by-blow, song for song response to Exile on Main Street, harmonicas and all. Which I’m sure was a draw for many. Then you’ve got all that pale skin on the inside sleeve, along with Dirty Harry quotes, and finally the fuzzy school of shy subjectivity headshot on the back. What record store guy isn’t going to go for that when presented with the clearly-idolized muse presented in Canary? Unfortunately for Phair, the honeymoon was really brief – especially once Steve Albini made it his personal crusade for real rock to get her trashed and effectively exiled from the Chicago post-punk scene. Grumpy critics defected in droves.
3 Divorce Song, I think, hits about every wish fulfillment stop and instrumental cue on the music-geek route, with utterly off-the-cuff naturalism. Which is of course what sold everyone early on. But, as the songs and singles kept coming, you realize in most of the tunes, as in life, guys don’t usually come off looking so great. Yet, it’s also pretty clear most of Phair’s songs (like many of Mary Timony or Chan Marshall) seem wholly populated by troublesome male targets. The songs certainly don’t dote – take Perfect World off the 3rd LP : "I know the girls that live inside your world / Just sitting next to a mortal makes their skin crawl." That might’ve been the too true put-off for many early fans.

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