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Craig's Music Club
CD Reviews

Pop music reviewed with a discerning ear.

CDs Reviewed
Exile in Guyville by Liz Phair
Liz Phair by Liz Phair
Comeandgetit [EP] by Liz Phair

In the Pursuit of Leisure by Sugar Ray
How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb by U2

Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville
Liz Phair, Liz Phair
Liz Phair, Comeandgetit [EP]

Don't hate Liz Phair for wanting to make a little money. Yes, she did make the classic female sexual angst album Exile in Guyville (written in response to the male-centric attitudes of the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street), and it is a terrific album. Raw, introspective rock; a great debut. I find myself returning to it often when I am in that sort of mood. Although it is humorous in some ways, it is also very dark.

And although it's obviously a very personal album, it has struck a chord with listeners all over--even men. I read somewhere that when her mother heard it, she cried because the emotions contained in it were so strong and right on the surface.

All in all, eighteen terrific songs with highlights such as: "Flower," "Gunshy," "Never Said," and "6' 1"." Plus a darkly sexy topless shot of Liz on the cover that goes a long way towards portraying the impression of defiant sexuality contained within.

And, as I hope you'll see, she's been selling out from the beginning. With her next album, Whip-Smart, she made her first video, for the song "Supernova," which was a moderate hit. But the album itself didn't deliver the punch of Guyville (except maybe the song "Jealousy") so I didn't get into it as much as before. After my purchase of the Juvenilia EP (also including "Jealousy" and her cover of the Vapors' "Turning Japanese"), I pretty much lost interest, especially after all the talk about her next album being all about her new marriage and baby. There's nothing worse for a woman's career than becoming unavailable. Just ask Alfred Hitchcock.

I didn't buy whitechocolatespaceegg when it came out (although I did recently) but even when it came out, critics talked about how she'd "gone pop" with her high level of production. So, I don't really see what all the brouhaha is over her newest release, Liz Phair. Sure, she got Avril Lavigne's production team, The Matrix, to "co-write" and produce a three or four songs, but that was after a failed session with Michael Penn. Notice the pattern here?

In fact, what made me aware she even had a new album out was the press junket she was on promoting Liz Phair the artist and album. Usually a self-titled release proclaims either a debut artist, or something particularly different from a know artist--a new introduction to that musician. In that sense, Liz Phair is only a minor departure. But it certainly has been created to seem mainstream-friendly. Sexy album cover (in a more polished, yet tousled, way) and heavy production notwithstanding, it's still a "Liz Phair album." The sexual frankness is still there (and "H.W.C." is a little too singable for my comfort) and even under the Matrix's genius (like the Dust Brothers before them) lies Liz's life story in sharp relief with songs about her new sexual freedom and her son's trouble with her new men friends.

This is still the Liz we all know and love. She's just a little glossed up. Unfortunately, that is going to be the album's downfall. She has alienated many of her old fans but at the same time has not made an album that appeals to the mainstream. I don't think this will be the big seller that she is hoping for for that reason. It has a split direction, the songs are true to her artistry, but the package is a big marketing ploy, with no overlap or true destination. Four producers worked on the songs (Matrix, Penn, Phair herself, and R. Walt Vincent--Pete Yorn's producer). That doesn't give anyone room to present an identity; you get used to a sound and it moves on. And if she's trying for mainstream success, why do a couple of songs sound like Poe (who we haven't heard from in over two years) and Aimee Mann, and why would she use the producer of Pete Yorn--all outsiders at best? And, when was the last time someone signed to a big label got rich off their recordings? Artists like Toni Braxton and TLC have sold millions of records and then had to file bankruptcy. Don't you need to have your own label to make that kind of money? Come on, Liz, help me help you by getting your act together.

While altogether the songs combine to make a good listenable album, it's not cohesive enough to put forth a consistent identity for the public to latch on to. In that way, it's more like a compilation of songs off several albums. The Comeandgetit EP (available on the internet with the purchase of the CD) feels at least more like the old Liz and is definitely worth the download if you can find it on a file-sharing network. With songs left over from the Michael Penn sessions and her own productions, these five songs show what Liz Phair could have been. That could have actually been a decent seller, and it wouldn't have turned off so many of her fans.

Sugar Ray, In the Pursuit of Leisure

Probably like most people, I first heard of Sugar Ray through their much overplayed hit single "Fly" from their breakout album Floored. I never expected that they would last this long. Obviously they didn't either, entitling the album that followed 14:59 (signifying their knowledge that their "15 minutes" were almost up).

But they continued to have hit songs appearing on the radio. I thought that the demand for their kind of music would have been filled by Smashmouth. Yet here they are with another album ready for our perusal. At this point, I have resigned myself to their continued existence and see their spot on pop radio. I don't expect anything more from them than lighthearted fun summer songs that are catchy and easily hummable. And that's exactly what they deliver on In the Pursuit of Leisure.

The only misstep is also the only really interesting part of the album, which is the brass intro at the beginning of the album. But after that, we're all on the beach playing volleyball and having a good time. It's difficult to review an album like that because all the songs are supposed to sound alike in order to keep the brand pure. However, there is a decent cover of Joe Jackson's 1980s hit "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" on which Mark McGrath sounds uncannily like Jackson. I heard the song on the radio the other day, and I wasn't sure which version it was--it's that faithful. Even the single "Hey Bartender," which I found mildly annoying on first listen, grows on you after the second run through.

This is "music to turn your brain off to." And, like I said, that's all we expect from the band who call themselves Sugar Ray. Luckily for us, they, unlike Ms. Phair, are unlikely to challenge our preconceptions, and for that, I thank them.

U2, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb

Pop phenomenon U2, after years of trying to experiment with their sound, to the tune of abysmally-selling albums, finally decided with the turn of the millennium, to give the audiences that loved them from the beginning exactly what they want: the same old pop from the 1980s with a little 21st-century gloss. All That You Can't Leave Behind was the result. The four guys from Ireland continue their resigned pandering with How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. It's everything their last album was, and less. Less verve, less emotion, less of interest in general. If you've heard the first single "Vertigo," you've heard everything this album has to offer.

To be fair, I don't consider myself a U2 fan (my favorite CD is Rattle and Hum, for Pete's sake -- although not its film counterpart), but I was fascinated by the path they were following after breaking into the mega-millions with The Joshua Tree: 1991's Achtung Baby was a window on the world of pop experimentation. Of course, there were the sappy love songs to tide over the holdouts, but a song like "Mysterious Ways" opens the mind to new possibilities.

Zooropa and Pop followed to continually-decreased response. It wasn't necessarily good music, but it was well-executed. I have to admit that they went a little overboard with the ZooTV concert concept, but I was eager to see what would result after they worked out all the kinks. Unfortunately, they decided to cater to the lowest common denominator and ended up with their best-selling album since they veered from the beaten path. The only bright spot was "Beautiful Day," one of the few recent visceral experiences I've had from a pop song. Unfortunately, there's nothing of that sort of quality on How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. It's pure tripe of the worst order and it shows what happens when a band lets the audience tell them what to play instead of following their own instincts.

  • ...more to come...