A shocking, conflicted Phair to remember

CD Reviews

August 13, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Liz Phair

Whitechocolatespaceegg (Matador 7243 53554)

Liz Phair has a flair for pushing people's buttons.

Outrageousness, in fact, is part of her charm. When her first album, "Exile in Guyville," was released in 1993, critics were shocked - shocked! - by her ribald boasts and fondness for four-letter words. Naturally, they rushed to declare the disc an indie-rock masterpiece.

"Whip-Smart," Phair's 1994 follow-up, augmented its unladylike language with unabashed ambition. Yet rather than brand Phair a sellout for wanting a place in the Top-40, the rock press all but signed on with her label's marketing team.

"Whitechocolatespaceegg" finds Phair up to the same old tricks. Recorded after a three-year hiatus, during which the 31-year-old singer married and became a mom, it does its level best to both suck you in and tick you off.

Admittedly, the album's shock value isn't quite as high as on Phair's first two albums. She isn't, after all, a female Marilyn Manson, bent on pushing the envelope with each new release. Nonetheless, there will be some eyebrows raised by "Johnny Feelgood," a song about a woman who gets turned on by the abuse she receives from her beautiful-but-cruel boyfriend. With lyrics like "he knocks me down/And he orders me around/ ... And I can't get enough," it's unlikely to be featured on the National Organization for Women jukebox.

That probably won't be as shocking to her fans, though, as the lack of confessional material. Although "What Makes You Happy" clearly casts Phair as its protagonist, "Polyester Bride" makes a joke of the singer's celebrity, while other numbers are quite clearly about other people. ("Big Tall Man," for instance, begins, "I'm a big, tall man...")

Musically, it boasts the same blend of low-gloss production and high-impact hooks as Phair's other two albums. Even though she's working with top-drawer studio talent, including producer Scott Litt (R.E.M., John Mellencamp) and mixer Tom Lord-Alge, the album's sound is surprisingly small-scale and flat. It's as if Phair were afraid that giving the album a big, slick sound would make the music sound less authentic.

At the same time, some of the songs are such obvious attempts at mainstream-rock accessibility that anything less than a big, slick sound would undermine the music's intent.

So the album ends up seeming almost conflicted about how it should come across, as such songs as "Big Tall Man" and "Polyester Bride" deliver big hooks, big guitars and an MTV-friendly finish, while "Go on Ahead" and "Ride" have such a small sound and so many rough edges they could pass for home-studio demos. Factor in the classic-rock overtones in the bluesy "Baby Got Going" and the Stonesy "Only Son," and it becomes impossible to find an appropriate pigeonhole for Phair's music.

But what's wrong with that? For all its self-consciousness and confusion, "Whitechocolatespaceegg" is the most likable and consistent of Phair's albums. That may not be enough to make it a masterpiece, but it will make it worth playing, again and again and again. ***1/2

Rock/pop

Jermaine Dupri

Life in 1472 (So So Def 69087)

Anyone who reads the fine print in Billboard knows that Jermaine Dupri is one of the hottest producers in pop music, having crafted hits for everybody from Mariah Carey and Aretha Franklin to Xscape and Usher. So of course his solo debut, "Life in 1472," is full of phat beats and first-class cameos. In fact, about the only thing missing is meaningful content. Dupri may be a master when it comes to cutting party-ready jams, but he's hardly a verbal visionary. Every rap on the album is about sex, money or boasting, easily the three most tired topics in hip-hop, and Dupri's guests - Nas, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Mase and others - bring nothing new to the table. **1/2

Gerald Levert

Love & Consequences (Atlantic 62261)

A lot of R&B singers talk about old-school soul, but few embody its sound and sensibility as completely as Gerald Levert. It helps that he has better roots than most (his dad is Eddie Levert of the O'Jays), but he also understands the old-school virtue of understatement, and that's the secret behind "Love & Consequences." A set of slow-simmering love ballads, the album gives Levert plenty of space to exercise his deep, sexy croon, yet he never wastes time on showing off. Instead, his performance on songs like "Men Like Us" and "Thinkin' About It" are lean and intense, with Levert singing as if each note held back a torrent of emotion. Soul singing as it should be. ***

Various artists

For the Masses (A&M 314 540 919)

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