Liz Phair -- Whip-Smart

(Matador)

Published in KADE Magazine October 27, 1994
The week the Rolling Stone Liz Phair cover hit the stands and her wonderful new album came out, The Village Voice Rockbeat column had a little blurb on the aforementioned cover. It seems that Rolling Stone's arch-rival Spin had a cover story all ready, but when Rolling Stone demanded exclusivity she dropped Spin like a plutonium potato. Naturally, Spin got all pissy and immediately cancelled a favorable review of Whip-Smart, which is the only thing about the whole episode that rubs me raw: is their record review policy dictated by their features department? I guess that most 'zines are, cos obviously they're gonna feature who they like, not what sells. Right? Right? Just something to think about.

Meanwhile, I'd like to work up a backlash filled head of steam against Liz, but I simply can't blame her for deciding to go to the Prom with the flashy-car senior rather than the nerdy smart geek. I mean, c'mon, she's a master of hype anyways, and the decision was probably so natural she made it in a whiplash second. And what did Spin expect? Despite the fact she's on Matador, she's obviously aiming for the mainstream, and I say let her go, guys. Better to learn how she feels now than later. You probably shoulda figured it out sooner: after all, the perjorative Guyville she was exiled in refers to your scene. But you were all too dazzled by the fact she puts out. And hey, it was Exile in Guyville, not Guyville Calling. Or Guyville: Songs and Stories.

And as somebody who never not once belived Guyville was an answer record to the Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street (a brilliant piece of humbug it was, though) and thought it went on too long to boot, I'm pleased to report that the new Whip-Smart is everything good a second album should be. It's a lot closer to Reckoning than it is to Pretenders II. The improved sound quality is still miles and miles away from anything even remotely resembling slick. Instead of glossing over the rough spots, it does wonders for showing off the ramshackle smarts of her arrangements.

Sometimes the arrangements are obvious--the piano on "Chopsticks,"-- sometimes they aren't: no whip on the title track, but a chorus acknowledged as stolen from Malcolm McLaren's "Double Dutch." And as if to claim 80's Brit-poppers as an influence, "Support System" has a whistling bit no doubt inspired by XTC's "Generals and Majors." And more than once she keys into a phrase and constructs a coda repeating that phrase over and over again: "you gotta have fear in your heart" from "Shane" and "I won't decorate my love" from "Nashville."

Lyrically, she's still wonderful. What made Guyville so sexy wasn't all the explicit language--it was the matter-of-factness of her frankness. It was like, "Yeah, I enjoy sex. Duh." And on Whip-Smart her sexual enthusiasm boils over on songs like "Supernova," Meanwhile, "I saw secret positions that we never tried" captures "Jealousy" perfectly and I think "Chopsticks" is a neat femme update of "Norwegian Wood" -- all about a tryst that didn't happen. And who really cares how often she uses the f-word anyways? Though I am glad to see Matador didn't put one of those Tipper-inspired "Parental Advisory" stickers on the record.

I suppose those who want Liz to be the May Queen of indie rock are sure to be disappointed that her second album is so pop. But I'll betcha that her vision (not to mention her reputation) is still so idiosyncratic that the masses don't bite. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Whip-Smart gets sandwiched between indie backlash and the indifference of the multitudes. Too bad, cos its a damn fine record.

--Jim Connelly

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