By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
While this may seem a predictable postalt retreat, give Phair some credit--she's too cranky, and sui generis, to pigeonhole so easily. Her firm reluctance to fit in was writ large last month at Lilith Fair, where she led a band of mufti-clad rockboys in a backless cocktail dress that accentuated her svelte, blond, well-groomed good looks. Having announced her newly achieved status as a suburban matron--one most of her audience would eventually share with her, Indigo Girls CDs and all--she proceeded to flout proprieties no one else but Missy Elliott gave a thought to. There was "Johnny Feelgood" knocking her down, and there was "Dance of the Seven Veils," its "I'm a real cunt in spring" wafting sweetly and obscenely over Jones Beach. What's more, she rocked a far harder set than there was any reason to expect of a notoriously stiff live performer, not to mention any of her sisters on the bill--leaving room for hope that years late she'd taken the prime tenet of indieland to heart and forged her music in the crucible of a working band.
In fact, Phair's not ready for that pigeonhole either. Half produced by old DIY partner Brad Wood, half by R.E.M. hand Scott Litt, Whitechocolatespaceegg is the music of an artist who shares an indigenous habitat with record geeks--the kind of bedroom that's longer on stereo equipment than ceiling mirrors. Her model isn't the bar raveup but the home demo--spare, halting, blatantly if not always practically hooked (is that Lamaze breathing on that rhythm track?). The new record isn't as acutely realized as Guyville, but forgive it a few vacancies and it will generate the same aura of inevitability over time. Wood's productions are stronger on the whole primarily because Phair gave him the surefire songs (bet he would have flubbed the mystic title tune, which will grow on you), and without undermining the conception, the overall sound has filled out. But given a vocal affect that rarely gets nearer to warmth than intellectual sympathy and is never, ever bubbly, the resemblance to pop is strictly formal. The shitloads of money Phair scored when she signed her post-Guyville deal are all the shitloads she's liable to see for a while; the musical attractions here signify artistic advance only, with all commercial projections speculative.
Figure she's a classy enough broad to settle. In a year when women-in-rock from Madonna to Courtney to Lucinda to Polly Jean will all stake claims, she's laid out her own turf. She's cool in the existential rather than scenester sense--as anticonfessional as Randy Newman himself. Yet as she grabs her songs from life and nowhere, she's credibly concerned as well. She's determined to remain a smart woman in a man's world.