First there was her voice, which mixed girlish glee with irony, both pleasingly conversational and strange in its deadpan rendering of a tumultuous emotional landscape. Then there was her eye, which observed in dead-on detail real-life stories of desire and relationships and fame and things even more ordinary, like bad roommates.
Then there was her talent for and love of pop songcraft, sifted through her own peculiar filter, filigreed here and there with punk, folk and funk. But it was ultimately Liz Phair's complex persona — audacious, funny, lusty and smart — that blew people away on last year's phenomenal debut album Exile in Guyville. The record sounded shockingly fresh, honest and engaged, and its low-fi roughness was a foil. Phair's sophistication and authority issued from every track.
Whip-Smart, Phair's new record, is an excellent follow-up to Guyville. Phair's picaresque narrative of adventure unfolds over 14 songs that elaborate on her favorite themes: sex, love, power, freedom and rock & roll. For those who discounted Guyville's sexual bravura as just a quick and easy way for this ingénue to grab attention, she throws a fuck into Whip-Smart's first two songs. Note: Fucking was not a passing fancy but a source of inspiration.
Guyville laid bare Phair's exile stance in the boy's world of indie rock. (It's telling that Phair was more comfortable allying herself with rocker males a generation removed: Guyville was styled as a self-conscious retort-homage to the Rolling Stone's Exile on Main Street.) This time, Phair avoids responding explicitly to rock history in favor of a dip into her own.
In an album that dances on the cusp of adulthood, her voice appropriately swings between adolescent and grown-up. The lyrics and music, too, mimic a halteing rite of passage as they brim with fragments of nursery rhymes, childhood games and tall tales that finally seem less willful than wistful.
On "Dogs of L.A.," a playground chant ("Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie/Kissed the girls and made them cry") is gender-flipped and sung as a tentative love song: "I kissed the Buddha and made him cry/Georgie, I'm your friend." The title track nods to a jump-rope step as a chanted refrain — "When they do the double Dutch, that's them dancing" — even as the song is a wish list for an imaginary son. The rocking ode to independence "Cinco de Mayo" refers to "Alice falling down a depening hole," and the otherwise muddled "Support System" boasts maniacally whistled choruses.
And consider "Chopsticks," the album's first track, on which a chat about a game of jacks serves as foreplay. The lack of affect in Phair's voice, her nonchalance, melds with the banality she describes, both musically (in the methodical children's piano exercise of the title) and in the lyrics: "I met him at a party, and he told me how to drive him home/He said he liked to do it backwards, and I said that's just fine with me/That way we can fuck and watch TV."
She's a slacker poet of the first degree, but the break around the corner of her voice nails the longing beneath the torpor. So does the distorted guitar at the song's end, a snarling ball of feed back that finishes up high like a question mark.
Aided by co-producer and drummer-bassist Brad Wood (and co-engineer and guitarist Casey Rice and bass player LeRoy Bach), Phair has once again written and "directed" a bunch of entertaining, affecting songs: the tightly wound "Jealousy," a natural successor to Guyville's oft-quoted "Fuck and Run"; the enigmatic "May Queen," with its bounding rhythms and ringing vocals; the lyric flights of the chugging, buzzing "Super Nova" ("Your lips are sweet and slippery like a cherub's bare wet ass/You're a human supernova/A solar superman/You're an angel with wings afire/A flying, giant friction blast"). On guitar Phair can play power chords and strum quiet meditations with equal aplomb.
Most of the time, Phair's limited vocal range, her struggle for pitch, suits her material. But too often on Whip-Smart she swallows her words or sings too low in her register. And for such a fine song-writer, Phair seems to have let a couple too many tunes creep on to this disc unfinished. Some songs trail off into nothingness or end abruptly to no good effect. Others are too short, or the kicker is repeated many times to the fade, as in "Shane" ("You've gotta have fear in your heart") or "Nashville" ("I won't decorate my love"). Granted, they're two provocative lines. Taken together, they might even serve as a thumbnail of Phair's rules for living.
These quibbles are important only in that they make Whip-Smart a little less than just right. This brainiac bad girl deserves a lot of credit for not being cowed by her classic debut. In going back to her girlhood, Liz Phair, an exile no more, finds a rich wellspring from which to draw.