To set the record straight: Liz Phair (who headlines the Ogden Theatre on Sunday, November 22) was never my blow-job queen. That white upper-middle-class girls wanna get freaky and then dissect their conquests after the fact was hardly a titillating discovery. Nonetheless, Phair still struck me as a nervy, likable figurehead. Her debut, 1993's Exile in Guyville, was a catty concept album pompous enough to address a swaggering masterpiece by the Rolling Stones (1972's Exile on Main Street), and she surfed its lo-fi wave with the flat, commiserating voice of a confidante. At a time when women were under-represented among crafters of bedroom tapes, that was more than enough. But hype is a fairweather chum, and context is everything. In the years between her sophomore smash, 1994's Whip-Smart, and LP number three, Phair married, reproduced and returned to the studio to make Whitechocolatespaceegg, an easy, digestible offering that bears testimony to her enduring talents as a songwriter even as it calls into question any lingering association with the proverbial cutting edge.
The disc's production is a step fancier than before thanks to the efforts of longtime collaborator Brad Wood and Scott Litt, a high-profile producer to the alterna-glitterati. As a result, no ragged hangnails remain, but this slight gloss doesn't harm the solid standouts: The title cut starts slyly futuristic and ends anthemic, and "Headache" features the catchiest of synthetic bass lines. Phair also serves up several acoustic guitar numbers that seem as guileless as Girl Scout campfire songs yet contain some of her more jaded and/or mature perceptions. A sprinkling of duds and yawners are on hand as well, including the corny railroad chug-along "Baby Got Going" and "Ride," both of which reiterate that she would rather be fucking--perhaps a bone thrown to an earlier contingent of fans.
To Phair's credit, Whitechocolatespaceegg is varied in style and subject matter, indicating a willingness to expand and play. For all that, however, the recording is safe, warm, Lilith-ready. It's not that she's changed all that much; it's that the world shifted in the interim, rendering her yield none too novel. But there will always be a place on the collective plate for comfort food.
Pounding Nails in the Floor With My Forehead
Using occasionally accented voices as weapons and words as ammunition, Eric Bogosian unleashes his wrath against anyone and anything. In the nine one-man plays that make up Pounding Nails, he offers a vision of the American dream turned into an urban nightmare. "Intro" is a prime example of his sublime sarcasm: During it, he chides the crowd listening to him for its "judgmental New York attitude" before insisting that "I want to bond with all of you...I don't want to rock the boat; I want to help row." Here and elsewhere, listeners are left to differentiate between truth and presentation and to wonder if Bogosian's profound and often darkly hilarious cultural critiques of the masses aren't aimed directly at them.
There's no time bomb tick-tick-ticking in the background of these pieces, but there might as well be, since all of Bogosian's creations seem ready to explode. In the brutally funny "Blow Me," the source of his outrage is the world; in "Fan," Bogosian is angry at himself; and "Recovering Male" finds him targeting his own penis. "Glass," in which a yuppie attempts to justify his perch on the social ladder, is even more thought-provoking. You can feel the protagonist squirm as he desperately tries to convince you that it's fine to ignore the homeless and so-called starving Africans. ("I have the coffee mugs and tote bags to prove my commitment" to the cause, he says.) Since he has done nothing wrong and "follows the rules," the character argues, he deserves the good life that he has etched out--and he honestly feels that he and "the bum out on the street" are equals because they both are doing the best that they can. This commentary points out the fine line between doing something and merely acknowledging it, just as the album as a whole challenges people to bridge the gulf between wrong and right. In short, the man behind the mike strives for interaction through consideration.
Bogosian is a descendent of stage performers such as Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, two men with a gift for delivering social commentary that's laced with laughter. Like Bruce and Pryor, he can also offend, but that's a risk he's willing to take. Rather than spoon-feeding those in his audience, Bogosian whacks them across the knuckles, leaving a bruising but unforgettable mark.
Wide Swing Tremolo
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Son Volt's third album confirms what a lot of fans have probably suspected all along: The group rises and falls with Jay Farrar's full-bodied baritone. His voice was equally effective on the quiet laments (like "Windfall") and boisterous rockers (such as "Drown") that highlighted the band's acclaimed debut, Trace. But he sounded downright narcoleptic on last year's Straightaways, and the music that accompanied him followed suit. Despite a few buried gems (most notably, "No More Parades"), the disc was a meandering disappointment.
Fortunately, Tremolo rectifies the errors that marred its predecessor. The opener, "Straightface," is a stylistic declaration of intent in which Farrar trades folk rock's subtleties for Southern rock's raw power. Moreover, his singing, which is filtered through feedback, is clear and intelligible yet edged with menace. In other words, Farrar sounds as if he's got a chip on his shoulder, and it suits him nicely on "Medicine Hat," "Driving the View" and "Flow," a trio of melodic guitar riffers during which his previously plaintive tone is replaced by an unmistakable urgency.
Farrar's oblique lyrics are still better at setting a mood than telling a story, and his attempts to stretch musically aren't always successful: The funereal "Dead Man's Clothes" works, but the backward guitars on "Carry You Down" and the atonal harmonica that accents "Jodal" quickly wear out their welcome. As for "Blind Hope," it sounds, for better or worse, like Farrar fronting vintage Steely Dan. But even if such experiments don't always succeed, the mere fact that these strict traditionalists are willing to take such leaps gives the album a hint of adventure that Straightaways lacked. There's always been a strong element of the open road in Son Volt's music, and on Tremolo, Farrar and company head in some interesting new directions.