Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Liz Phair - "whitechocolatespaceegg" (LP Review)

When I last talked about Liz Phair, I was kicking around her 2003 self-titled LP, which is so universally reviled that it was a pretty cheap shot on my part. To make it more interesting -- and roughly working backwards through her discography -- I'd like to discuss her often overlooked third LP, 1998's "whitechocolatespaceegg".

This LP is frequently considered the beginning of the end -- it did not attract the commercial or critical attention that her two previous LPs did. Interestingly, whereas they featured numerous (re-recorded) songs from her Girlysound demo tapes, this LP features only two: "Shitloads of Money" and "Polyester Bride". Not coincidentally, they are two of the best songs on whitechocolatespaceegg.

Was Liz running out of ideas? As a thirty-something, was she no longer able to crank out the angst-filled anthems that came so easy when she was a twenty-something, no longer channeling her inner Corey Flood? Or, more likely, she had fallen to the bane of all female rockers: marriage & children. Seriously, that's when Pat Benatar lost her edge too. In fact, the title "whitechocolatespaceegg" is in reference to her child's head crowning during birth. Corey Flood would never use that as the title for her LP.

Whatever the reason, the song quality on this LP varies greatly. The best songs are as good as any of her earlier material, including the new material: "Girls' Room" (which perfectly captures the politics of middle school girls), "whitechocolatespaceegg" (a nice plodding song that sounds like Liz Phair meets Black Sabbath) , "Big Tall Man", "Perfect World" (how did this song not end up on Sex and the City?), "Johnny Feelgood", and "Uncle Alvarez". Only one song is really bad: "Baby Got Going" (her skiffle tribute). The rest of the seven songs are slightly boring and fail to engage, shock, or find a clever or catchy phrase / chorus. Liz (I pretend I'm on a first-name basis with her) has never been about technical proficiency; instead she writes terribly clever songs and packs them with attitude. If one or both are missing, they just don't work.

For example, "Perfect World" sets the bar pretty high:
I wanna be cool, tall, vulnerable and luscious
I would have it all if I'd only had this much
No need for Lucifer to fall, if he'd learn to keep his mouth shut
I would be involved, be involved
Be involved, be involved, I would be involved with you
She also nails it in "Girls' Room":
Here comes Tiffany, my best friend Tiffany
Wearing a size-too-small sweater
Me and Tiffany, dressing up pretty
We love to ride, we love to canter
My best friend Tiffany, she is so popular
We're going from site-to-site and pool-to-pool tonight
And we hear Terri say that Trisha's okay
But she ought to learn to shave her bikini line better
And Tauren was born, like her mother, in a storm
And Tracy's been away forever
In fairness, some of the "rejected mixes" are better than the more "radio friendly" versions that appear on the LP (this is also where the record labels start meddling with her LPs). For example, the rejected mix of "What Makes You Happy" is much better than the LP version.

So while some of the songs are great, as good as the material on her celebrated earlier releases in fact, whitechocolatespaceegg never quite comes together as a solid collection. It would have worked much better as a 30 minute EP (easily scoring a 9/10) rather than a 50 minute LP.

Standout songs: "Shitloads of Money", "Polyester Bride" (official video, 2003 live, solo version), " Girls' Room" (2010 live version), "whitechocolatespaceegg", "Big Tall Man", "Perfect World" (studio version, 1999 live version), "Johnny Feelgood" (studio version, 2010 live version), and "Uncle Alvarez".

Skip 'em songs: "Baby Got Going"

Final score: 6/10. Good, but not essential for casual fans.

Bonus Link: Liz in the studio, working on the LP.

P.S. I will eventually get to her first two LPs.