In a way, it shouldn't matter that Liz Phair took four years to put together her third album, whitechocolatespaceegg. Sure, Bob Dylan released his first seven albums in the time it took Phair to craft this set of ditties, but times have changed since those wildly prolific days. Besides, what really matters is the work, not the time it took to produce it. But Phair, like Lucinda Williams, has unwittingly raised expectations by working at such a snail's pace.
Though the album offers little that's earth-shatteringly different from what Phair's done before, repeated listens make it clear why she needed so much time. For one thing, this album represents Phair's frightening immersion into the world of adulthood, after shaking up the indie-rock world with the sexual provocations of 1993's Exile in Guyville and tentatively inching forward with the following year's Whip-Smart.
Now a married 31-year-old mom, Phair clearly feels a bit uncomfortable with the raunchiness that brought her acclaim. In its place, she substitutes the compassion of the title track, and a bit of hard-earned relationship wisdom with "Love Is Nothing." At times, Phair's new adult perspective leads to clumsy writing, as on the mercenary "Shitloads of Money" ("It's nice to be liked/But it's better by far to get paid"), and her thin, fluttery voice simply doesn't lend itself as well to open-hearted sincerity as it did to the fuck-and-run irreverence of her early work.
But Phair's laborious working methods show most clearly in the sonic sheen of the album, the sense of production detail that makes workaday rockers like "Johnny Feelgood" or "Polyester Bride" so powerful. She also finds potent new narrative possibilities with songs like the turbo-powered rockabilly tune "Baby Got Going" or "Only Son," which are both sung from the male perspective.
Best of all is "What Makes You Happy," which brandishes the old wit ("I swear this one is going to last/And all those other bastards were only practice") on the story of a woman bravely plunging into love with a guy who's come out of a messy divorce. As with most of this fine album, "What Makes You Happy" is domesticated without being dull, and mindful that the search for happiness is no Hallmark card, but a confusing, complex process that never ends.
Hi Fi Killers
Hi Fi Killers, actually two white-boy DJs/instrumentalists named Kevin Oakland and Johnny Horn, are dedicated to the return of the groove, to bringing da funk back to the art of DJing--'70s nasty-style. Possession, a double CD containing 24 tracks, makes that point abundantly clear, bustin' the sex-style retro-gangsta grooves for a solid 80 minutes.
Taking their inspiration from artists like Rick James and Sly & the Family Stone, the boys from Seattle rock Supafly beats peppered with cop-drama samples and occasional soul-styled raps (courtesy of various guest MCs). The album opens with a repetitive thuggish beat that puts you trancin' as it builds to the next track, the sax-soaked hustler rhyme "Hardball." From there, the Killers salute their heroes with the stylishly derivative "Family Stones" and continue rolling through the landscape of grooves that once populated ghetto sound systems.
The downtown badlands theme is kept throughout the album, with gritty cuts like "Parole," "Mind Thuggin'" and "Gangsta Eulogy" shaping a stark soundtrack of the streets, circa 1975.
The second disc contains instrumental tracks culled from the HFK vaults, thick with pimp-ass beats and illbient do-me grooves worthy of any '70s porn soundtrack.
Most current outfits that try to pull off retro-phunk styles end up shticky to the point of embarrassment; the Hi Fi Killers take their funk seriously and make their peers look like amateurs. These white kids not only feel the funk, they sculpture and manipulate it into a signature all their own.
The 9 Volt Years: Battery Powered Home Demos & Curios (1979-198?)
(Razor & Tie)
It's easy to forget now, but there was a brief period in the early '80s when Marshall Crenshaw was the hot American songwriter of the moment.
Crenshaw's songs were rootsy, tuneful and romantic, and they offered an antidote for people alienated by hard-core-punk anger, New Wave self-indulgence and new-romantic fashion obsessiveness. At the same time, however, Crenshaw's songs possessed just enough of a jaded edge to feel contemporary amongst such company. After all, when he pined for love, it was a "Cynical Girl" he was after. And when he expressed his devotion, it was with the faintly smart-ass "You're My Favorite Waste of Time."
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In 1982-83 alone, singers as disparate as Bette Midler, Lou Ann Barton, and Robert Gordon covered his songs. In the years since then, Crenshaw has maintained his high standards, but he's had to settle for the kind of low-level cultdom that befalls those who have the chops but lack the glamour.
Crenshaw's latest Razor & Tie release, a collection of old home demos, puts heavy emphasis on that heady period when stardom seemed possible for him. Though such a compilation is inherently uneven and lo-fi, it offers a wealth of reminders of what made Crenshaw so special in the first place. For instance, the fiery "Something's Gonna Happen" feels like a vintage early rocker in its verses, then deftly transforms into an intricate modern pop song in the bridge. "First Love" and "Everyone's in Love With You" demonstrate Crenshaw's flair for unabashed candy-coated pop, while his soulful vocal command comes through on covers like "I'm Sorry" and "That's It, I Quit, I'm Movin' On."
The most welcome surprise, however, comes with a guitar instrumental called "Bruce Is King." The song was released--with vocals--on 1985's Downtown album under the title "Blues Is King." In this compilation's liner notes, Crenshaw reveals that he never liked the song's lyrics, and thinks the song should have remained an instrumental. This gorgeous, spare rendering backs up his contention and suggests the potential value of all such demo collections. Sometimes the first draft turns out to be the best draft.