It’s 1994. Liz Phair has just played her catchy new single Supernova on the David Letterman Show. Her last album, Exile In Guyville is selling well and Liz’s face is beaming from the front cover of countless music magazines as she promotes her latest effort, Whip-Smart. The album is a roaring success and Liz takes over the world while PJ Harvey sulks in the background.
Well, not quite. But Whipsmart is hardly the disaster that was 1998’s whitechocolatespaceegg. So what was the reason for her fall from grace? Well, for a start, there doesn’t seem to be a theme running through the album as there was in Exile, which perfectly reflected the simmering rage of a breakup. Perhaps the inclusion of early Girlysound demos didn’t exactly help in that respect
While the flatness of Phair’s vocals seemed charming and fragile before, now it just seems, well, flat. First song Chopsticks, which worked fine on the Girlysound demo tapes, is a little too similar to Canary both musically and lyrically (“He said he liked to do it backwards / I said, “That’s just fine with me, That way we can fuck and watch TV.”) I must admit, though, I was fascinated that Liz Phair knew Julia Roberts when she was 12 at summer camp.
Having said that, any album that sounds remotely like Exile in Guyville is still a kick-ass album, and Whip-Smart contains enough to make it worth your while. The first half of the album is especially strong, from the bubblegum pop of Supernova (which was a hit) to the great whistled chorus of Support System. The main problem is the tracklisting. Shane, Go West and Nashville (especially) are great slices of low-tempo melancholy pop, but put together tend to all blend into one.
The second half loses its way slightly, which makes the excellent title track even more of a standout. It’s no coincidence that it’s another Girlysound song, but unlike other fans I’m a sucker the weird background croaking sounds and tribal drums they’ve added to the song. Phair has a tendency to repeat lines over and over again (when I first heard it I thought my CD Player had got stuck) which sometimes drags, but here repeating “When they do the double dutch that’s them dancing” ad nauseum somehow works. Get Exile In Guyville first, whatever you do, but if you’ve already got that, Whip-Smart might just surprise you.