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Liz Phair
whitechocolatespaceegg
Matador/Capitol

Some might complain that marriage and motherhood have blunted Liz Phair's edge. Where she was once content to rant from her own, often bluntly personal vantage point, Phair tackles, on whitechocolatespaceegg, a broader range of characters and textures. Her first release, 1993's Exile in Guyville, was a song-by-song response to the sexism prevalent in the Rolling Stones classic Exile on Main Street aimed at the boys'-club atmosphere of Chicago's indie music scene. With semi-autobiographical confessional lyrics that spoke frankly about the travails of a smart, sensitive woman, its minimalist musical approach and stark viewpoint were eye-opening in a pre-Alanis world. But the brazen attitude, and increasingly complex production and instrumentation of Guyville's follow-up, Whipsmart, largely failed to deliver on her debut's promise.

Four years later, Phair's anger has subsided, which has allowed her storytelling skills to blossom. That shift in perspective is most evident on "Uncle Alvarez," which deftly personalizes a yuppie's incessant phoniness, underscoring the various lies we tell ourselves and others. New textures and instrumentation are evident throughout spaceegg, with tablas, fretless bass, triangle and piano accenting Phair's chunky guitar riffs and catchy, understated choruses. The disc's prettiest, most accomplished track is its closer, "Girls' Room," on which Phair uses her patented vocal Lamaze technique to vary the volume of her singing to dizzying effect.

Further proof of Phair's thematic branching out comes on "Only Son," in which she adopts the persona of a son who disappoints his family, eventually leaving them behind completely. Lackadaisically straying behind the beat, Phair laments, "Good-bye, so long, I'm gone already." But as the song picks up steam, it becomes a celebration, chugging along like vintage Velvet Underground. All through spaceegg, Phair demonstrates her mastery of the "show, don't tell" narrative technique. And while her newfound sophistication might disappoint a few riot grrrl stragglers, it ought to impress those fans looking for real growth. (*** 1/2)

-- David Simutis

Rancid
Life Won't Wait
Epitaph

Maddeningly scatterbrained, brazenly presumptuous and dizzyingly eclectic, Life Won't Wait upgrades the Clash's Sandinista! for the '90s with a grating dose of harrowing, premillennial furor. On this, the third full-lengther from San Francisco's most hailed punk revisionists, the various tussles with authorities, scandals in the Royal Family, draft worries and Central American strife that drove that bloated 1981 epic are supplanted by the ravages of urban decay ("Leicester Square"), the realities of economic hegemony ("New Dress"), the lingering shadow of racism ("Life Won't Wait") and glimpses into Eastern Europe's post-Soviet malaise ("Warsaw").

But while Sandinista!'s three-LP excursion into self-righteous excess far outweighs Life Won't Wait's 22 tracks in sheer all-inclusiveness, Rancid's Tim Armstrong and his infrequent band mate collaborators can't hold a blowtorch to the songwriting team of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones in their prime. Rancid's dabblings in reggae, soul and ska -- while just as awkwardly white and grooveless as the Clash's like-minded forays into rap and dub -- lack the sophistication and melodic cohesion the Strummer/Jones partnership brought to the table. Wait's most shameless reggae knockoff, the title track, sounds displeasingly dull and dated, as if Rancid were transmitting from the far corners of some tropical sociopolitical time warp. "Division is a new world order," Armstrong crows with the aid of fellow Rancid guitarist Lars Frederiksen. "Come along and tell your sista and your brotha."

Any overtures toward old-school authenticity are long past due by the time Jamaican dance-hall god Buju Banton puts in his wasted toasting effort. In fairness, the band did fly to Kingston to record "Life Can't Wait." But the more honest product of those brief sessions is "Hoover Street," an incorrigible slice of junkie life that rocks harder than anything on Rancid's last -- and best -- release, ...And Out Come the Wolves. The tune makes effective use of the bullish Armstrong/Frederiksen harmonies (to eerily Clash-like effect) and the implausible tinkling of a xylophone.

Although there are several such highlights on Life Won't Wait -- perfect little pop numbers ripped to shreds and reassembled as snarling punk anthems -- there are almost as many wrong turns and rash stylistic oversights. ("Backslide" proves without a doubt that Stax soul horns, surf-guitar solos and heavy-metal licks are a dubious mix.) A portion of the blame can be laid at the combat-boot-clad dogs of Armstrong, who overcompensates for his lack of insight with a jarring surplus of attitude, as if any hints of subtlety might eradicate the band's well-informed lowlife image. In essence, Rancid want it three ways: They want us to admire their intelligence, fear their recklessness and, first and foremost, value their message. But exactly what they want us to take from that message is anyone's guess, seeing as its vehicle -- the music -- is mired in contradictions.

That's not to say the group needs to back away completely from the careless eccentric route and go the refined way of their Bay Area contemporaries in Green Day. But it might be easier to get at the crux of Rancid's true reality if they'd hone their approach and choose their causes a bit more discriminately. As it is now, the troops in the Armstrong army are carrying on like rebels without a clue. (**)

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