Inside her new CD cover, Lisa Loeb is stroking her tongue with a cream-smeared finger, and looking sideways. Raunchy? Potentially: The picture alongside is of an upright straw soaking in a pool of milk. Then she’s contemplating her creamed finger, her lips poised in a smooch. Cake and Pie is the title.
On the front of Natalie Imbruglia’s new release, the gooey-eyed wonder is sprawled in a white tutu across crisp pillows. Her head is on her shoulder. Elvis is crumpled across her chest. Pretty hip.
The two women at hand are known as one-hit wonders. They have brains, lovely faces, and caramel hearts. One of them went to an Ivy League school. Her thick glasses are chic enough to prove it. The other dropped out before any of it mattered—to explore her inner performer, as it were.
There are tracks on Cake and Pie that suggest Loeb might have been a badass had she realized herself when boofy bangs and women with lightning-bolt guitars were defining pop. “Too Fast Driving” and “Payback” have enough electric energy to conjure the gut muscles the Bangles brought to life when it was cool to be femme and fatal in the same sentence. She’s got the Zappa boy on guitar, which is a start (Dweezil, son of Frank and lover of Loeb), but she could do with some of the Bangles’ drum-perm power to wrench the rhythms. “Don’t want to think about the limit and I am in it,” goes “Too Fast Driving.” Loeb lets loose here. But these days, she knows, it’s not the black-eyed, red-lipped girls that get the goods.
For the most part, this, her third full concoction, plays like the soundtrack that Dawson and such creekdippers should be coming of age to. She’s a brainy cookie and surely she intended this. Her music is confectionary. In 1993 Loeb was the girl neighbor who made apartment living sweet for Ethan Hawke. He discovered her in the soundtrack for Reality Bites, one of the last decade’s most dubious cultural landmarks. This album’s “We Could Still Belong Together” was picked up for Legally Blonde, last year’s biggest good/bad girl movie. Loeb started out softening the bite of reality with “Stay (I Missed You)” in a world ready for economic and urban change. Years later, she’s playing the same tune.
The problem with both these lovelies is exemplified in Loeb’s first line: “I kept talking to myself/I had to get the words out of my head (so I did).” Too many stream-of-consciousness lessons can ruin a career. The saving grace may be the words in Imbruglia’s head, instead: “Didn’t want to leave you with the wrong impression/Didn’t want to leave you with my last confession/Yeah.”
Imbruglia’s last confession was not quite her own, and it is how the world remembers her. Since 1997’s “Torn,” she’s been partying with Brits and working out how to top the single that topped her. Her introduction to the chart world, borrowed from the L.A. band Ednaswap, had her writhing and bare. She followed fellow Aussie Kylie from the soap streets of suburban Melbourne to the post-soap lanes of rainy London, where anything bright and bouncy from Down Under can feed. She bought a mansion, moved to White Lilies Island, wrote 64 songs, trashed them, and wrote 64 more. The 12 on White Lilies Island are apparently the best of that five-year bunch.
In what’s becoming an Imbruglia pattern, the album starts out well enough. “That Day” is a fast song that chews everything to the bone. There’s shrieking and breathing. The words come in and out and move around the circle. “That day, what a marvelous mess/I’m tired, and I’m right, and I’m wrong, and it’s beautiful.” There are guitar crunches and low thuds. As for the rest of the record, if a marvelous mess it was, she’d have achieved something. But there’s an overwhelming tinny ring that starts on the second track, “Beauty on the Fire,” and ends with the last track—it’s this young possum’s voice.
Imbruglia got big quick. She was the love of Daniel Johns (from Silverchair)’s life—and that can’t be an easy feat, tied to his guitar and his surfboard as he is. White Lilies Island comes now because her label would have fined her $1 million otherwise. She hasn’t walked the paths of DiFranco or PJ Harvey, and it’s a pity because she needs to learn from their kind. She’s so much more cheesy than them, but so much less cheesy than the world wants her to be. There are hints of a rocker in this too gorgeous girl, a couple of guitar stanzas and drum embraces that may even have required a little face-scrunching, a little tendon tension. In 1997 she did well lying naked on the floor. But White Lilies Island smells cheap, and it will stain her.
Sex, food, and Elvis. The pop world. Loeb anticipating an empty fork on the front of Cake and Pie. The word change in illuminous blue on the inside of Imbruglia’s cover. Raunchy? Raunchy enough to suggest a good time. Loeb has put on a pleasant enough spread, but she’d have more on her fork with a little more beating, a little less slurping. Imbruglia on the other hand has just gotta get out of bed—she’s been stroking that inner self too softly, too long. Ms. Clever and Ms. Demure know the game good and well. Time for Ms. Cheeky to lick the bowl.