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Liz Phair; Michelle Branch

Liz Phair (Capitol); Hotel Paper (Maverick/Reprise)

Ah, the music industry, where a former white-hot mama indie rock icon turns to designated hit-makers the Matrix, the Scandinavian songwriting team responsible for Avril Lavigne's success, and a teenage upstart relies on her own songs.

As can be seen by the outrage over Liz Phair -- a New York Times scribe called it "career suicide" -- the hipster set isn't ready for the newly reinvented Phair, now a MILF who looks packaged in her naughty schoolgirl threads. Vestiges of her shocking past still linger in her profession that she loves "semen" on "H.W.C." and in her comparison of a love to her favorite panties on "Favorite." The music is well constructed (as is Phair), and thankfully, there's always room at the table for headstrong women who can deliver solid pop-rock.

Although Phair is nearly twice Michelle Branch's age, she has less than half her audience, and the eponymous album title is a giveaway that Phair is trying to find listeners who don't know her from her kick-in-the-balls 1993 lo-fi debut, Exile in Guyville. Apparently she doesn't want to alienate the core fans either -- after all, she's still bluntly spewing four-letter words and waxing poetic about sperm and panties. But she's a single mother now, and the music is bright, shiny and nonconfrontational -- pure suburban sweetness, glossy with power chords and giant hooks. When she slows it down, dimming the guitars on "Take a Look," the emotions seem more heartfelt, and overall it's a bright, sunny, radio-friendly set of songs, so she seems to have reached her goal on that count. Still, knowing that she wants desperately to break through casts a certain cynical air on the entire record. Doesn't mean you can't sing along to every track; it's just that once it's over, none of those songs sticks around, either.

Best New Artist Grammy nominee Branch's debut wasn't as critically lauded as Phair's, but she has more, at least commercially, to live up to on her sophomore album. Taking a cue from Santana (whom she joined on his latest album), Branch gets guest spots from Sheryl Crow and Dave Navarro (on the first single, "Are You Happy Now?"), but 19-year-old Branch has songs and charisma enough to power the disc's solid hooks and straightforward delivery. She has a strong voice, but only limited life experiences, and Hotel Paper undoubtedly would be a meatier follow-up if it had left behind some of the broken-heart and life-on-the-road clichés.

Still, Phair could learn a lot from Branch. At least the youngster sticks to her guns and does what she does best, without pandering or trying to look half her age.

 
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