Girl in the spotlight

Lisa Loeb, figuring it out in public

Imagine Rod Serling walking out of the soundstage and into the pool of light cast by a single spotlight. "Submitted for your approval," he says in that authoritative way that jogs our collective TV memories. "A portrait of a young woman who wants nothing more than to sing, and who wishes for a bit of fame by virtue of her talent. She's about to get her wish, but she's also about to find out that wishes don't always work out as planned, when you're wishing for things in..."

Unfortunately for Lisa Loeb, there follows no announcement of The Twilight Zone, no floating eyeballs, mannequins, or Einsteinian equations; nor are there any eerie doo-doo-doo-doos chirping in the background. Loeb is caught in the infinitely more bizarre world of pop music, where early success turns into a millstone, and people are more inclined to dislike you forever than to give you a break. Perhaps she should have remained a college kid singing her songs at Dave's Art and Pawn Shop and Chumley's a bit longer--gradually leaching the green from her palette--but in 1994 she ended up being the first artist to conquer the pop charts without the help of an album, a record company, or even a real record, all by virtue of a once-ubiquitous little ditty entitled "Stay."

Imagine how difficult it must have been for Loeb to follow the runaway success of "Stay." Lonely nights of creative angst, a clamoring public demanding she prove herself again or risk love's loss. Her next effort--1995's Tails--was about as clumsy as a freshman's first lit essay. Her early post-"Stay" live performances were equally awkward and full of open-mike-night uncertainty.

Her hometown appearance as part of the Lilith Fair traveling extravaganza was miles beyond those tentative first steps and revealed her to be developing the confidence required to hold the attention of 20,000 sweaty people--and, by implication, a nation of music consumers. With the release of Firecracker, her second album, she shows a smaller version of that progress--a version that will probably not change anyone's mind on either side of the hate her/love her equation.

Although likable enough--sufficiently well written and put together--the 12 songs on Firecracker, at their heart, still suffer from a certain sense of the self-contained. Her gentle, subdued tunes are the sounds of contemplation in the vacuum of a solitary walk through a snowy day, the kind where the snow comes down in big wet flakes that muffle all sound, save the scrunch of your boots. It's music with appeal--nobody's saying that internal ruminations don't have value--but what's required for real effect is a reaching out, a need so urgent that it grabs your sleeve and knocks over your coffee cup with a clatter that makes everybody in the room stop what they're doing and stare before returning to their own business.

There are more moments like this on Firecracker than on Tails, but they exist as hints and implication more than statement: "I Do"'s tale of comeuppance developing, "Wishing Heart"'s outpouring of previously pent-up emotion that animates a request for understanding. Sonically, there are other undercurrents: the series of slightly dissonant, climbing string accents that punctuate "Furious Rose," which sound like something out of a '60s suspense show, or the odd seconds-long prequel that seems to kick off "Dance with the Angels" before ceasing and yielding to the song's actual intro.

But the lyrics don't capitalize on the mood. On "Wishing Heart," Loeb's desire for understanding is presented, yes, but there's not enough risked to demand--to force, if need be--that understanding. On "Furious Rose," a browbeaten woman ("As he raises his voice, she lowers her head") asks for "wild plums and agrimony" before noting with resignation: "I bet you don't even know what that means." As Loeb's boat floats higher on the rising tide of popularity enjoyed by the music embodied by Lilith, she's going to have to become more self-assured, even tougher if she wants to keep up. Something like: Hey, you dumb bastard! If you want to keep time with me, you'd better come up with some wild plums and agrimony, and quick! And start putting the remote back in the same place each time! What? Well, look it up!* (*Footnote: Webster's New World Dictionary defines agrimony as a plant that has little yellow flowers on spiky stalks and fruit like burrs.)

The best songs are the last two, "Split Second" and the title track. "Split Second" is a song that--at last--seems frantic, chasing its tail through a dynamic verse/chorus rise and fall that melds perfectly with the obtuse lyrics to form a song, a feeling that can be felt if not exactly explained. (The guitar work of Mark Spencer--best known perhaps for his work with the Blood Oranges--is subtle glory throughout.) "Firecracker" is the same blessed union--noise and word, sound and vision--that builds to more than the sum of its parts. It's too bad more of the album couldn't have been like these two songs.

Ultimately, one can't help but think that without "Stay," Tails and Firecracker would have been creative struggles worked out locally, self-released, or put out on some regional label. That they're not may be unfair, but it's the hand she's been dealt. Only time will tell if her story has a happy ending or ends up being yet another ironic tale designed to wrap up nicely before the last commercial break.

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