The Good: Good voice, Decent instrumentals, Nice lyrics, Decent balance between production and natural sounds
The Bad: Sounds derivative on a number of tracks, SHORT!
The Basics: Surprisingly good, though short, The Way It Really Is solidifies Lisa Loeb as a vital singer-songwriter in the current generation.
Lisa Loeb is one of those artists I am pretty surprised it has taken me so long to get around to listening to; I have enjoyed her few radio hits and now that I am taking in her recorded library, I am finding myself pleasantly surprised that her works are as good as they are. Sometimes, I find myself wondering about how much my reviews change between the first listen and the eighth or more. I generally try to hold off reviewing an album until I have listened to it at least eight times. In the case of The Way It Really Is, I find myself wondering if that's the right way to do things.
The reason I am in this somewhat murky moral territory on the issue is that my initial listen to this album left me feeling much more ambivalent to it than I do now. In fact, now I'm positively glowing about it. The thing is, I'm not sure if that means it is just that good and I did not hear it for what it was as quickly as I ought to have or if I have just become more familiar with it from the repetition. After all, when one is used to something it generally becomes a part of us easier. I'm thinking that with The Way It Really Is, I'm actually enjoying the album quite a bit because when I listened to The Very Best Of Lisa Loeb this morning, I found there were tracks from this album I missed more than off any other album of Loeb's I've listened to.
With only eleven tracks, clocking in at a paltry 37:18, The Way It Really Is is perhaps most hampered by its short duration than anything qualitatively wrong with the work represented on the songs. As one might expect from a Lisa Loeb album - if there are such things as expectations for this strangely obscure musical artist - Loeb wrote or co-wrote every song on the album. In fact, the striking difference from many of Loeb's albums might be just how collaborative the writing is on this one. She only solo wrote four of the songs. She does, however, perform the lead vocals on all eleven songs as well as providing her own background vocals on most of the tracks. She defers on the instrumentals more than on prior albums, though she plays acoustic guitar on nine of the tracks and "additional piano" on one. She produced or co-produced ten of the songs. In other words, this is very much the musical vision of Lisa Loeb.
The Way It Really Is is a decent collection of musical musings and Loeb opens the album with one of the songs that rocks harder than those unfamiliar with her albums might expect. "Window Shopping" starts out with a familiar, folksy sound, then erupts with electric guitars and a rich produced sound that instantly changes the perceptions one might have on the demur nature of Lisa Loeb. Yes, on The Way It Really Is, Lisa Loeb rocks!
As always with my perception of music, the spark has to start with the lyrics. The Way It Really Is is lyrically impressive on most of the tracks, continuing Loeb's mix of decent diction, emotive poetry and story songs. She sings primarily about relationships ("Window Shopping," "I Control The Sun"), though some of the songs take a broader interpretation and perspective to include ambition and support ("Try") and the fascination with abomination ("Accident"). As with some of the prior albums, she has question songs ("Would You Wander") and a mix of pop-rock and folk-rock writing sensibilities.
For example, on "Accident," she sings with lines that are more along the lines of what one might expect from a folk-rock story song. She sings about "The heiress introduced / She waltzes in her ballroom / swirling in her sequins, showing off her gown. / She steps on her own train, / She falls. / She cracks her jaw. / Aghast, her husband giggles. / She gasps, 'She slipped on spilled champagne" ("Accident"). In addition to not being so concerned about rhyme schemes, Loeb uses words like "aghast," which might not exactly be a 1600 SAT word, but it's smarter than most of the diction on pop-rock tracks these days. From the intricately set-up story, Loeb leads to a more universal exploration of how people become fascinated with broken things and damaged people and it becomes a remarkably insightful song.
One of the real bits of magic on The Way It Really Is is how the music and lyrics combine. Loeb is remarkably adept at combining the sound and feel of lyrics with music that reflects the anger ("Window Shopping") or longing of a song ("Try"). So, on "Try," Loeb plays a slow, piano-driven ballad as she wanders through the stanzas to get to the heartbreaking refrain with passages like "Your girlfriend never smiles, no one ever calls. / You begin to wonder if they were your friends at all. / You frown, you take a look around. / You shout, this'll never get better. / But the doubt that you grow in your field is sprouting / Turning your field into a deeper valley / You'd find / The mountains aren't so high / If you'd only try / to do better" ("Try"). The mix of the longing vocals, the intimate piano and the expressive lyrics create a stark mood that shows at least as well as it tells the musical story Loeb is singing. Frankly, there are too few musical artists who are able to do that these days.
The whole concept that made me wonder if I am enjoying the album more from the repetition comes up mostly with the last track, "Now I Understand." "Now I Understand" was one of those tracks that passed me by the first few listens. I listen to most of my c.d.s on repeat so I'd know I hit the end when "Window Shopping" (great way to start the album, by the way) came back up. "Now I Understand" was just part of the white noise of the late tracks (which is a terrible mischaracterization of the end of this album).
Then I actually heard it. Loeb sings a fairly rockin' track that is far better than most of the pop-rock that was playing on the radio in 2004, which makes me wonder why this was not a single and a huge radio hit for Loeb. After all, she has a pretty universal sentiment when she sweetly sings, "I didn't get what I expected. / Reached out and I got rejected. / I couldn't have it cause I checked it off. / Felt sad. I didn't understand it. / Why would this happen to me? / But my heart, it didn't stop. / It beat on and on and on. / Now I understand that my heart doesn't stop / Even though it feels like it could explode" ("Now I Understand"). Loeb is an adept lyricist - much more than I thought she might be before I started going through her albums - and she has a lot to sing about. "Now I Understand" is a beautiful pinprick to the balloon of childhood notions of love and romance. It is clever, well-written and well-performed.
If there is any real problem with the music (outside the lack of duration) it is how derivative the album sounds of the works of other artists. For example, on the amazing album closer "Now I Understand," Loeb sounds like she is emulating Aimee Mann. I'm not overly tuned in to Mann's works, but this song sounds like it is right off the Magnolia Soundtrack (reviewed here!). Similarly, "Hand-Me-Downs" and "Fools Like Me" sound remarkably familiar and I'm thinking that they might be reminding me of Liz Phair's work.
Vocally, Loeb does not seem to challenge herself much in terms of range on The Way It Really Is, but she has more than just a sugary pop sound, so the album is quite listenable. As well, the songs are not all guitar-driven, so Loeb seems to be growing as a musician. Anyone who likes a good female singer-songwriter or, hell, a decent singer-songwriter, The Way It Really Is is a great way to go. In fact, from my experiences so far, if I had to pick one Lisa Loeb album to put in a collection alongside her "best of" album, it would be this one. No question.
The best track is "Now I Understand," the low point is probably "Probably," just because I become annoyed with repetition.
For other works by Lisa Loeb, check out my reviews of:
Catch The Moon with Elizabeth Mitchell
The Very Best Of Lisa Loeb
Check out how this stacks up against every other piece of music I have reviewed by visiting my specialized Music Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the music I have reviewed!
© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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