Girl in the Spotlight

Rod Serling walks out of the sound-stage gloom and into a pool of light cast by a single spotlight. "Submitted for your approval," he says, pulling his lips back from his teeth. "A portrait of a young woman who wants nothing more than to sing, and who wishes for a bit of fame by virtue of her talent. She's about to get her wish, but she's also about to find out that wishes don't always work out as planned when you're wishing for things in the...."

Unfortunately for Lisa Loeb, there follows no announcement of The Twilight Zone; no floating eyeballs, mannequins or Einsteinian equations; no eerie doo-doo-doo-doos chirping in the background. For Lisa Loeb isn't caught in TV land; instead, she's caught in the infinitely more bizarre world of pop music, where early success can turn into a millstone, and people are much more inclined to dislike you forever than to give you a break.

Perhaps Loeb should have remained a college kid singing her songs at Dallas's Dave's Art Pawn Shop and Chumley's a bit longer -- gradually leaching the green from her palette -- but in 1994 she ended up being the first artist to conquer the pop charts without the help of an album, a record company or even a real record, all by virtue of a once-ubiquitous little ditty titled "Stay."

If you think Zone's Burgess Meredith was well and truly screwed -- wishing to be alone in the world so that he could read in peace, only to break his glasses when solitude (and the impossibility of repair) were finally his -- imagine Loeb trying to follow up on the success of "Stay." That attempt was made with 1995's Tails, which was about as clumsy as a freshman's first English lit essay. Her early post-"Stay" live performances were equally awkward and full of open-mike night uncertainty.

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Her appearance this summer as part of the Lilith Fair traveling extravaganza was miles beyond those tentative first steps, however, and revealed her to be developing the confidence required to hold the attention of 20,000 sweaty people -- and, by implication, a nation of music consumers. With the release of Firecracker, her second full-length CD, she shows a smaller version of that progress -- a version that will probably not change anyone's mind on either side of the hate her/love her equation.

Although likable enough -- sufficiently well-written and put together -- at their heart, the 12 songs on Firecracker still suffer from a sense of the self-contained. Loeb's gentle, subdued tunes are the sounds of contemplation in the vacuum of a solitary walk through a snowy day. It's music with appeal -- nobody's saying that internal ruminations don't have value -- but what's required for real effect is a reaching out, a need so urgent that it grabs your sleeve and knocks over your coffee cup with a clatter that makes everybody else in the room stop what they're doing and stare.

There are more moments like this on Firecracker than there were on Tails, but they exist as hints and implications more than statements: the tale of developing comeuppance in "I Do," the outpouring of previously pent-up emotion in "Wishing Heart" that animates a request for understanding. Sonically, there are other undercurrents: the series of slightly dissonant, climbing string accents that punctuate "Furious Rose," which sound like something out of a '60s suspense show, or the odd, seconds-long prequel that seems to kick off "Dance with the Angels" before ceasing and yielding to the song's actual intro.

But the lyrics don't capitalize on the mood. On "Wishing Heart," Loeb's desire for understanding is presented, yes, but there's not enough risked to demand -- to force, if need be -- that understanding. On "Furious Rose," a browbeaten woman ("As he raises his voice, she lowers her head") asks for "wild plums and agrimony" before noting with resignation "I bet you don't even know what that means."

Loeb's boat has floated high on the rising tide of popularity enjoyed by Lilith-style music, but if she wants to stay above water she's going to have to become more self-assured. She's going to have to stop lowering her head and become insistent: Hey, you dumb bastard! If you want to keep time with me you'd better come up with some wild plums and agrimony, and quick! And start putting the remote back in the same place each time! What? You don't know what "agrimony" means? Well, look it up! (Incidentally, Webster's New World Dictionary defines agrimony as a plant that has fruitlike burrs and little yellow flowers on spiky stalks.)

Firecracker's best songs are its last two, "Split Second" and the title track. "Split Second" is a song that -- at last -- seems frantic, chasing its tail through a dynamic verse/chorus rise and fall that melds perfectly with the obtuse lyrics to form a song, a feeling transmitted that can be felt, if not exactly explained. (The guitar work of Mark Spencer -- perhaps best known for his work with the Blood Oranges -- is a subtle glory throughout.) "Firecracker" has the same blessed union -- noise and word, sound and vision -- that builds to more than the sum of its parts. It's too bad more of the CD couldn't have been like these two songs.

Ultimately, one can't help but think that without "Stay," Tails and Firecracker would have been creative struggles worked out in small venues, self-released or put out on some regional label and presaging Loeb's full creative development. That they're not may be unfair, but it's the hand she's been dealt. Only time will tell if Lisa Loeb's story has a happy ending, or ends up being yet another ironic tale designed to wrap up nicely before the final commercial break.

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