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Liz Phair
Whip-Smart
Matador

Anybody who thought Phair's out-of-nowhere Exile in Guyville debut of last year was a fluke -- either in its unexpected sexual frankness, or in its almost instant perch atop most critics' year-end polls -- had better prepare for a happy rebuff. Whip-Smart is irrefutably listenable proof that Chicago's Phair has got the songwriting goods to deliver on the current epoch's need for a contemporary Patti Smith, even if Phair has yet to emerge from the studio with a proven touring band.

The Smith comparison is all too common when you're talking about a distinctive new female voice in rock, and it's not flawless in this case (Phair's voice, for instance, leans closer to deadpan conversational than to Smith's passionate rangy flights), but the parallel is deserved because of the way that Phair claims typically male rock-and-roll turf and stamps it with her own charismatic imprint. When she sings to a man, in "Supernova," that "you fuck like a volcano and you're everything to me," she's being neither submissive nor willfully shocking (she's certainly not being coy), and at the same time she's saying something infinitely more direct and revealing than either the euphemistic boasts or sensitive self-deprecations of her male counterparts in sexual exploration. It's a fantastic line to hear on a record -- not because it inspires fantasy or desire, but because it's so damned unimpeachably real.

All this fresh realism would be little more than so much clever spoken-word fodder if Phair didn't have such a strong knack for writing three-and-a-half-minute slices of unadorned rock. Whip-Smart isn't perfect, and there are a few not-quite-finished songs here ("Dogs of L.A." is one such example, even if it is saved by a provocative refrain of "I kissed the Buddha and made him cry"), but tunewise, she hits the nail more often than she misses. Exile in Guyville was conceived as a conscious tribute/mirror to the Stones' Exile on Mainstreet, but here, hair steps out of the understudy's role to attempt her own classic. She comes righteningly close.

-- Brad Tyer

Sugar
File Under: Easy Listening
Rykodisc

Sugar leader Bob Mould, who hardly needs to be introduced at this late date as a founding force of wildly influential pop punkers Husker Du, has established a well-worn creative pattern since the Huskers disintegrated. Mould's moods, it seems, swing from mildly satisfied to drastically disturbed, and the albums he makes reflect that arc. Warehouse: Songs and Stories, the Huskers' swan song, was a mostly cheery, if unfocused, collection, followed by Mould's two engagingly distressed solo forays into distortionless melancholy, Workbook and Black Sheets of Rain. When Mould re-emerged two years back with his new power-pop trio Sugar, the band's Copper Blue debut recaptured a relatively happy spark that sent the album soaring on the indie charts. But just in case anyone thought Mould was finally getting over it, Sugar followed shortly with the Beaster EP, its cover shot of a bloody coiled rope reflecting the dark-side mood of its contents. Now, Sugar releases File Under: Easy Listening, which, in light of Mould's heart-on-sleeve emotional volatility, is an accurate enough title.

Mould's post-Husker trademarks are here intact -- the tunefully constructed pop songs; the gruff, melodic vocal lines; the seamless and somehow pleasant wall of guitar fuzz. But Mould's in a good mood again -- or anyway he was when Sugar recorded this -- and you get your clues in the "doo doo doo doo" chorus of "Can't Help You Anymore" and the way that Mould's shard-like chords are leavened with layers of acoustic strumming laid on top. In fact, the clues are so unmistakable (or is that just Mould's voice?) that it's tempting to see a formula at work.

The songs are pretty, hummable things, and it's not at all unlikely that they could provide Sugar's commercial breakthrough. But to anyone who picked up on Mould in his Husker days, there's a lack of youthful rage (as distinct from just plain bad moods) that makes Sugar sound something less than inspired, as if, yeah, Mould's one hell of a talented fellow and he can probably sit down and write these gorgeous songs all day long; I just wish he'd wait until it was really important so they'd give me the punch in the gut they once did. That, though, is quite possibly the complaint of one who's just wishing for a return to that age when a simple song could seem to mean much more than it actually did. There must be some people that age left out there, and I won't be terribly surprised to hear that File Under: Easy Listening gives them the jolt that I don't hear anymore. Call me stubborn, but all I hear is a bunch of pretty power-pop tunes that I don't particularly need to hear a second time.

-- Brad Tyer

Waylon Jennings
Waymore's Blues (Part II)
RCA Records

"We were the wild ones, we had the world on a string / We were the wild ones, we had the world by the tail." So goes Waylon's latest musical memoir, entitled (you guessed it) "The Wild Ones," which mercifully constitutes the beginning and end of his pronouncements on his infamous days as one of country music's proto-outlaws. Unfortunately, having covered his past, the Highwayman doesn't bother moving on to new territory on his latest release, nor does he offer much to celebrate his gruff, fussy style.

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