By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Play, lady, play
Those who spent their time trying to figure out if she was a fuck-and-run cocktease or a punk dilettante missed out on the essential fact: Liz Phair is one hell of a songwriter (she rocks when she wants to, but rarely needs to) and a trenchant singer. Forget the "blowjob queen" shtick that made Exile in Guyville the Forum favorite among the male critics; don't think she's only that girl on Whip-smart who likes to take it from behind so "we can fuck and watch TV" at the same time. It wasn't her foul mouth that made Phair a pop star (her 1993 Exile went gold, almost unheard-of for a minor-label record); it was the songs, everything from jump-start new-wave to bottom-of-the-trash-can blues to pretty pop to stripped-down, angular punk. She's a genre all by herself, out to reinvent rock and roll by doing nothing more than playing it straight in a man's, man's, man's world.
Four years after Whip-smart comes whitechocolatespaceegg, a record even the fanatics didn't think would ever see release (she began recording it in February 1996, it was due out January '98, and it won't be released till August 11). They feared Phair had been too worn down by critics who assailed her shaky live show; they worried she was too busy staying at home with her husband (Phair was married in 1995) and raising her newborn son. Instead, whitechocolate is what happens when an artist shrugs off self-doubt (Whip-smart was a bomb), begins writing outside herself (she's the "Only Son" and a "Big Tall Man"), and makes music with only her own expectations to guide her.
Phair's pleasures are deep, deceptive ones; they lie deep in the grooves, in songs such as "Baby Got Going" (which bears down like a runaway train, even if the train-in-a-tunnel metaphor is a bit obvious) and "Headache" (sparse, Raincoats-like new-wave with a breathless orgasm backbeat). She's ditched the songs about fucking and now tries to figure out how to turn love into something other than a one-night stand. "Love is nothing, nothing, nothing," she insists at one point, then turns around and whispers that "I never met a man I was so crazy about." If her earlier albums were restless, anxious, horny, then this is an album about growing up, settling down, and moving on without sacrificing everything.
And, as usual, Phair comes bearing a load of contradictions: On the opening cut, she insists, "I don't need money"; then asks her bartender pal if she should date "unfamous men"; and closes the record by demanding "shitloads of money." "It's nice to be liked," she insists, rewriting an old Girly Sound favorite. "But it's better by far to get paid." And laid--only this time around, by someone who loves you back.