The Good: Vocals are more understandable than debut, Moments of lyrics and music
The Bad: Annoyingly repetitive, Maintains juvenile sound, Short
The Basics: With emotionally disconnected lyrics obsessed with sex as the sole function of relationships (no love here!), Liz Phair's concept album falls flat.
I'm nearing the bottom of my cache of c.d.s and as I await my new fix for the week (of music and videos), I find myself spinning Liz Phair's second album, Whip-Smart. Having just heard and reviewed Phair's debut, Exile In Guyville, (reviewed here!), Whip-Smart surprised me for how it fixed the most serious problems of the debut, but deepened other faults. The result is that Whip-Smart is overall a weaker album than Exile In Guyville.
Liz Phair, for those unfamiliar with her works, is a pop-rock singer-songwriter who is known for sexually frank or explicit lyrics, and from her radio-friendly hit in 2003 "Why Can't I?" She is essentially a pop-rock artist who seems to be singled out because she is a female artist who almost exclusively refers to sex as "fucking." She's been hailed as a rock spectacle or grrrl goddess, but I don't see it. She's much more pop than most of her critics credit her with being.
Whip-Smart is a fourteen-track pop-rock album that presents a more coherent musical artist than Phair's debut. Simply put, while Phair's vocals were distinct on Exile In Guyville for being almost completely incoherent - she mumbled through the album - Whip-Smart is refreshingly clear and direct. The vocals are almost completely understandable and that makes listening to Whip-Smart very easy.
Whip-Smart is a concept album charting the rise and fall of a relationship and it works when one listens to the album. There is a very natural progression from ending the prior relationship (opening song "Chopsticks") to finding a new attraction ("Supernova"), developing a new relationship ("X-Ray Man" and "Shane") and it falling apart ("Cinco De Mayo" and "Jealousy"). I like concept albums and the thematic evolution from beginning to end is one of the few strengths of Whip-Smart.
The problem here is that the execution of the concept is not as strong as the concept itself because Phair creates the album using lyrics that are mediocre, average, repetitive and using the same language as her debut. So, while I commend Phair for not being an artist who throws the word "love" around, the fact that in fourteen tracks, "love" comes up in one song. Phair sings "I won't decorate my love" over and over in "Nashville," but none of the songs ever broach the concept of the relationship the album's protagonist searching for love. Instead, this is more an album about someone hooking up, rather than truly relating or looking for anything emotional in a partner.
For those curious, on this album where "love" comes up as an accessory on one track, "f*ck" is used on three tracks, twice for sex, once as a curse. The songs lack impact for an adult audience because of the disconnect between love and sex. The reconciliation most adults make with the lyrics is that Phair is presenting a rather young, immature vision of relationships. In short, this is not music that's terribly appealing to those who have the goal of establishing and maintaining a long-term, loving relationship. Whip-Smart might reflect the reality of the search, but because none of the songs indicate any strong desire for love, the disconnect is very real and unsettling.
Perhaps as problematic is the repetitive nature of so many of the songs on Whip-Smart. Exile In Guyville had a repetition problem, which seems to have gotten worse on this album, possibly because there are fewer tracks. So, for example, on the track Whip-Smart, the refrain "When they do the double dutch, that's them dancing" is repeated TWENTY-ONE times over the course of the song, becoming hypnotic and monotonous.
The only track that truly worked with lyrics and music is Liz Phair's "Jealousy." Unlike Natalie Merchant's pop-version song by the same title (she had an acoustic version originally that was haunting and brilliant), Phair's "Jealousy" is harsh and angry as she cries out, "I know it's just a drawer of photographs / They're ex-girlfriends, I try to remember that / I don't wanna look, but I'm already hooked on jealousy . . ." She perfectly captures the heat of the emotion in the song, making it a worthwhile listen.
Otherwise, Phair has not progressed much from her first album musically. Just as her lyrics are still sounding like a teenage persona, her music is equally undeveloped. The songs are mostly pop, like Whip-Smart which is surprisingly sugary for an artist who uses "fuck" so much. Most of the songs are upbeat, pop-rock tracks that that Phair presents with her vocals accompanied by guitar or piano (which she plays) and/or synth, drums, bass and other background percussion and vocals. Given the reviews that declare Phair such a strong rocker, it's surprising how distinctly pop some of her songs, like "Supernova" actually are.
Despite the melodic refrain to such songs as Whip-Smart, much of the album is nondescript instrumentally, with weak music backing up droning vocals. Two great examples of this are the opening track "Chopsticks" (which has clear vocals, but for the life of me I couldn't hum you three bars, even after listening to the album six times) and "Alice Springs" which is just a murky musical movement that failed to impress me either musically or vocally.
The album ends with the somewhat pleading sound of "May Queen," which closes the album on an up-tempo sound, but with little additional content value. In all, "Whip Smart" is an album that has the feel of being churned out (this was released a year after her debut) with little growth and the only value above Exile In Guyville I see in it is that one may understand Phair's lyrics better.
Still, this leaves me disappointed with Phair. She's not as badass as early Alanis Morissette, she's not as emotive as Heather Nova, nor as artistic and initially talented as Sophie B. Hawkins. But, I suppose she fills the niche for female artists that use "fuck" and view sex as an act or activity rather than something with meaning and depth. Sigh. We can do without that.
The best song is "Jealousy," the worst track is the unmemorable "Crater Lake."
For other works by former Artist Of The Month artists, please visit my reviews of:
Jackie’s Strength (Single) – Tori Amos
Any Day Now - Joan Baez
MTV Unplugged - 10,000 Maniacs
For other music reviews, check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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