Friday, May 25, 2012

More Than A One-Hit Wonder, Lisa Loeb Is A Firecracker! (My Next Artist Of The Month!)

The Good: Decent voice, Good lyrics, Surprisingly diverse instrumentals
The Bad: Some amazingly terrible lines/rhymes
The Basics: Surprisingly strong, Firecracker reminds listeners that we ought not to judge our wonders by their one supposed hit!

There are few musical artists who hit it big with their first single and find that they still have the ability to record albums afterward for over a decade. Given the amazing success of "Stay (I Missed You)" on her debut, Tails, one suspects that most people wrote Lisa Loeb off as an artist who would be a flash-in-the-pan, one-hit wonder. Two years after that big hit, Loeb released Firecracker, an album that gave her a remarkable amount of creative control over her own work.

With an eclectic mix of folk-rock and pop-rock songs, Firecracker is a surprising album, even today. Perhaps what makes it so surprising - discovering it now - is that it did not cement Lisa Loeb's popularity in pop-rock music. Instead, the album performed poorly on the charts, but did well enough that sales from the album kept Loeb's musical career alive. The relative greatness of the songs on Firecracker seem to be enshrined by Loeb herself as some of the best, as seven of the twelve tracks are on her compilation album The Very Best Of Lisa Loeb, more tracks than from any of her other albums.

With twelve tracks, clocking in at 42:12, Firecracker is definitely the musical vision of singer-songwriter Lisa Loeb. In addition to writing (or on "Let's Forget About It," co-writing) all of the songs on the album, Loeb provides lead vocals on each track and provides most of the harmony vocals for herself. She plays acoustic guitar on all of the songs, save "Split Second," where she mixes it up with a truly vibrant electric guitar. She also takes a co-producer credit on Firecracker, so she is intimately involved in all aspects of the production of this album, it truly is her musical vision.

Lisa Loeb's musical vision is a surprisingly rich one for a woman, her guitar and accompaniment. What I mean is that for a guitar/bass/drums presentation - which is what all but one track on the album is (a piano joins her on "Let's Forget About It") - the songs on this album sound remarkably diverse. Lisa Loeb seems to have a strong and worthwhile foundation in music education and she is not afraid to present an album that showcases the many facets of that education. Moreover, unlike some albums that attempt to present a diverse sound, Firecracker sounds professional and produced, not like Loeb is taking the shotgun approach to making music. Instead of sounding haphazard, the album comes together with a musical richness that is a real credit to the artist. This, like similar ventures by other singer-songwriters, leaves me wondering how this album was not huge when it was released. Sigh. Pop culture was focused on the Spice Girls when Firecracker came out initially.

Great albums start with great writing and Lisa Loeb has strong poetic skills on Firecracker with only a few real strikes against her in the writing department (in fact, it is some of the lyrics that keep her from nudging this album even higher in the ratings). The songs on this album are almost exclusively about relationships and Lisa Loeb creates a series of musings and musical stories that put her brand of pop-rock right on the border with folk-rock. For example, "Furious Rose" is very much a musical story as she sings "'It's not really poetry, but it's pretty,' he said. / As he raises his voice, she lowers her head. / 'It makes my heart heavy. you're lonely, I think. / Oh, Rose, you're sad, I suppose.'" And despite the somewhat obvious rhyme scheme in that opening, this is a track with a remarkably high level of diction with lines like "I've heard energy in adversity. / Your smile: the soul of witchery . . . Bring me wild plums and agrimony . . . your languorous hum, that tone of surprise . . ." ("Furious Rose"). Perhaps Loeb failed to succeed because she was using words not easily accessible to the 12 - 18 c.d. buying crowd. In which case, bravo Lisa!

Not simply throwing around big words that youngsters might have to actually look up, Loeb has a wonderful ability to create a mood and she has something to say. Take the title track of the album, for example. Firecracker is another song about conflict in a relationship on the verge of splitting up entirely. Loeb creates a wonderful sense of mood by painting a very clear picture "You want to suffer and show me you're angry. / Spend time alone, find a stick in the basement. / Drink water and gold dust and live on impatience. / Slaughtered for weakness, electric like static. / Slaughtered, you're weak - there's no need to speak. / You change your shoelaces. / I light firecrackers" (Firecracker). The thing is, Loeb creates such a moody picture and then shapes it is with instrumentals that create an agonizing sense of discomfort. Musically, there is a (literal) discord (or discord) on the track that is unsettling and leaves the listener with no doubt that this conflicted relationship is utterly doomed.

As suggested before, though, Loeb's weakness is also in her lyrics. Those who follow my reviews know I have a serious thing against artists who simply rhyme the same word with itself. Loeb does this on several tracks, like overusing the word "truth" and "truthfully" in the song "Truthfully" or "heart" in "Wishing Heart." The only place where her repetition of a word actually works is on her harder rock track, "Split Second." On that, she creates a hypnotic mood by chanting, then shouting out accompanied by her electric guitar with a growing mantra of "It did not want to be stuck / One second longer than I had to be there, / Stuck inside the door. / I'm always scared I'll slam my fingers in the door / Because the last time that I left / I slammed my fingers in the door" ("Split Second"). Typing it out, it even sounds lame and repetitive, but this becomes one of the reasons to buy Firecracker. "Split Second" rocks and it is so different from anything else on the album that it is almost surprising it did not make it onto her compilation album. It's a decent contrast to the pop of "I Do," the ballad "How" or the folk/almost Country "Falling In Love."

That Loeb can unite an album with such diverse musical stylings is something of an accomplishment and not a small one in my book. Part of the way she does this is with her distinctive vocals. Lisa Loeb has a powerful alto voice that has both decent range - she goes lower on Firecracker and higher on "Falling In Love" - and a wide emotive range. As a result, she is able to sound sugary on "I Do" and whispers menace on "Split Second." She sings with a great, deep longing on "How" and a completely dismissive quality on "Let's Forget About It." That emotive range helps to create an incredible album with a strong ability to replay and continue to find something new on it.

The other reason for this is that instrumentally, Loeb produced the album to sound like more than what it is, which is essentially one woman, a guitar and pretty standard bass and drum accompaniment. Instead, the musical diversity creates a combination of rich and stark songs that keep the ear and mind moving through the album. In other words, there is nothing simple about Firecracker and it comes together through the creativity of the sound of the various songs.

Anyone who likes female singer songwriters will find something to love on Firecracker. Loeb is gifted with serious abilities and if this album is any indication, when her writing skills are honed to concentrate on the storytelling and emotive centers of her songs (instead of the obvious rhymes), she's going to take her place as one of the reigning singer-songwriters of the current generation.

The best track is probably the direct poetry of "Falling In Love," I'm pulling "This" as the weak link because as I look over the tracklist again after twelve listens to this album, I cannot remember how that song sounds.

For other, former, Artist Of The Month selections, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Jackie’s Strength (single) – Tori Amos
Any Day Now - Joan Baez
Hits And Rarities - Sheryl Crow


For other music reviews, please be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the albums and singles I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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