Better Version of Me
Reinventing the Ladies of the Lilith Fair

I’m late.

You want to know how late I am? I am so late, I know that the Red Sox are done for the year. If today’s date as I write this bore any resemblance to the date at the top of the page, I would still have hope for a World Series repeat.

Alas, it’s not Boston’s year. They lost in three games to the Chicago White Sox, one of only two teams in baseball to have gone longer without a Series win – 88 years as of this season. The other team? The Chicago Cubs, who last won in 1908. So Chicago’s hurting, and they deserve it this year – they came to play, and they’ll probably win it all. I have noticed, though, that no one is crucifying Sox second baseman Tony Graffanino for pulling a Buckner in game two. It looked to my eyes like the same play ol’ Billy fumbled, and he had to live with the scorn of Red Sox Nation for nearly 20 years. What gives, Boston?

I have also seen Serenity, and it was everything I hoped it would be. I don’t want to gush about it, because I want you to see it, and if I go on and on, like everyone else on the web seems to be doing, it will only serve to turn you off. I just have to say that $10 million in its opening weekend is plain weak. Whedon just can’t catch a break. This Friday’s estimates are in, and Serenity took in less money than A History of Violence, which is playing on almost half as many screens. I don’t get it, people.

So here’s a deal. Go see Serenity this week. If you don’t like it, write me and tell me why, and I’ll send you a dollar. A crisp, one-dollar bill to anyone who honestly dislikes the film and takes the time to write me with their thoughts. This is more for me, so I can hear criticism of the film and perhaps some theories as to why people are staying away. (I didn’t want the consolation prize to be anything too valuable, because then people will write me and lie to obtain it. This is really just me paying $1 for good opinions – a tossed-off “I hated it, now where’s my buck?” email isn’t going to cut it.) This offer is open to anyone whose name isn’t Mike Lachance, and is good for two weeks, from now until I post the 10/19 column.

And if you’re checking out movies, the aforementioned Mike Lachance has his big-screen writing debut this weekend, with the Madagascar Penguins short that runs before the Wallace and Gromit movie. From the box office figures, many of you are seeing this movie anyway, which is good news. It looks fantastic, doesn’t it? Go see it, and let me know what you think of Mike’s short.

* * * * *

So in 1997 I went to the first Lilith Fair, in Mansfield, Mass.

The bill included Sarah McLachlan (of course), Fiona Apple, Tracy Chapman, the Cardigans, Juliana Hatfield, and numerous others. It was a good show, although I found the concept a little silly – all women performers, all the time. Except, you know, for most of the musicians on stage backing the women performers, who were men. As were three-fourths of the Cardigans, the same percentage as in the Smashing Pumpkins, although Corgan’s bunch didn’t get invited. I kept a running tally, and the number of male musicians outnumbered the female ones two to one.

What the Lilith Fair was really about, it seems to me, was the female perspective – women singing songs from their points of view. And that’s all good, but separating performers by gender instead of by talent is just a smokescreen. The stupid-ass music business barely promotes women who aren’t sex bombs of some sort, as if their looks had anything to do with their talent – and the Lilith Fair blithely followed along, inviting the likes of Dido and Christina Aguilera to the final tour in 1999. Is there anyone who cannot name 10 male artists with more talent than Christina Aguilera? It’s all just ridiculous.

The Lilith Fair wasn’t about female musicians, either, as much as it was about female pop stars, and about getting more women on the radio. At that, it was quite successful – McLachlan herself, at the height of the tour’s fame, mentioned that she knew of several male singer-songwriters who couldn’t get airplay, and there was no gender-specific movement to help them. The end result was a pinpoint focus on one pop style, and a general blanding out of female-driven music.

Which was a damn shame for someone like me, who only divides music into “good” and “not so good.” I wrote about my experience at the Lilith Fair, from the only perspective I had – that of a somewhat nerdy male – and I got attacked for that perspective. (One letter suggested I retitle my piece “I Endured Chicks Playing Bad Music.”) The gender-specific thing really misses the point, though – I don’t like Meredith Brooks because she’s no good, not because she’s a woman. On the other hand, I can’t think of very many songwriters I respect more than Aimee Mann, or (for a while, at least) Tori Amos. It’s about what you can do, not which set of genitals you have.

It is true, though, that women have a much tougher time in the musical marketplace than men do. The female equivalent, bodily speaking, of Blues Traveler’s John Popper would never have been signed, let alone score any hits on MTV. I’m talking about three Lilith alumni this week, and all of them are thin and attractive, and have used their looks to sell their records, in one way or another. Because that’s the way the game is played, unfortunately, and women who break from that double standard (like the members of Sleater-Kinney and the great PJ Harvey) are few and far between.

I think that’s why so many people are angry at Liz Phair. It goes beyond just not liking her more recent work. It’s seething, personal resentment, and it may be because, when she started out, Phair was one of those kick-the-doors-in, stereotype-smashing women songwriters. Her 1993 debut, Exile in Guyville, was a lo-fi vulgar-fest tinged with vulnerability, an honest and definitive statement. Who cares if it just wasn’t all that good? It provided a rallying point, a standard for the new crop of female indie-rockers to bear. It’s ragged and brutal and charming and everything that, in 1993, a woman wasn’t supposed to be.

Granted, Phair’s subsequent missteps make Guyville look like a work of genius. When she finally sold out with 2003’s Liz Phair, a glossy teen-pop catastrophe, the response was explosive and spiteful. It’s as if Phair had spit on every reviewer with a laptop, instead of just having made a bad record. I even took her to task for choosing airplay over songcraft, and I stand by that – Liz Phair is a terrible album, with no trace of the genuinely interesting writer lurking beneath. I don’t care that she pissed on her former image, though. The music is what’s important, and the music on Liz Phair was awful.

But come on, people. If the music is what’s important, then you have to give props to Somebody’s Miracle, Phair’s fifth album. It’s a pop record, of course – she’s never going back to hunching over a four-track and mumbling “fuck” 18 times a song – but it’s a good pop record, in the same way that her self-titled effort was a bad one. This one hits the spot, much like Kelly Clarkson’s latest does, and in many of the same ways. This is classic power pop stuff, with groovy choruses and full-yet-prickly production.

The lamest thing here is right up front – “Leap of Innocence” is a snore, and Phair can’t quite find the notes. But from there, this is actually pretty good. “Stars and Planets” is as power-poppy as anything Matthew Sweet has ever done, and the chorus and bridge of “Count on My Love” is a knockout. The U2 overtones of “Lazy Dreamer” actually work, and even when she slows things down, as on the spare and haunting “Table for One,” Phair scores. Nothing here is earth-shattering, and Somebody’s Miracle won’t galvanize a generation like Guyville did, but as a set of 14 pop songs, it’s sturdy and enjoyable. Which is all Phair wants it to be.

In retrospect, this looks like part of a strategy – release something so obviously execrable in 2003, and follow it in 2005 with something that isn’t half bad, so it looks like she’s climbed a mountain instead of rappelled down a little hill. But it’s becoming obvious that Liz Phair has reinvented herself, and as a pop songwriter, she deserves to be taken seriously, images and audiences aside. Somebody’s Miracle may not bubble and burst like her Guyville period, but it’s far from dead, and its best passages pulse with new life. If you like Juliana Hatfield, for example, there’s no reason you shouldn’t like this.

But some artists find reinvention a trickier task. Take Sheryl Crow, who has made a name as a dependable radio-pop hit factory. She released a greatest hits album in 2003, after only four records, and damn if the thing wasn’t actually full of hits. But now here’s Wildflower, her fifth album, and Crow suddenly wants to be respected as a mature songwriter. Originally intended as the “art” half of a two-CD release, Wildflower is a slow, sodden trip through ballad country, and while it has its moments, there’s an overwhelming blandness to the whole thing, one that’s indicative of her whole career.

For me, Crow’s ballads have always been her stronger material. Her last album, the craptastic light-rock C’mon C’mon, featured exactly one song I liked, the epic “Safe and Sound.” So you’d think an entire album of string sections and acoustic guitars would make me happy, but it doesn’t. The songs are oddly flat and uninspired, with a few exceptions, and the production is so samey-sounding that the whole thing mushes together like putty. Sad, forlorn putty.

There are a couple of winners here, like the one-two caress of “Chances Are” and the title track, and Crow does raise the tempos for “Lifetimes” and “Live it Up.” But overall, this is a wash, a Sarah McLachlan pastiche that misses the appeal of her best work, and drowns it in inoffensive strings and reverb. It’s the kind of album that takes three listens to absorb, because it’s all so unmemorable, and when you finally have a grasp on it, you realize that it wasn’t worth those three listens to begin with. Crow is a workhorse, a decent enough singer and performer whose greatest skill is giving her audience what they want. She had a chance to make a personal and affecting statement here, and she blew it.

Not so Fiona Apple, who stands as perhaps the only genuine artist of the lot this week. One wonders sometimes if Apple’s oddball antics and disdain for the mechanics of the biz are a pose, but then one hears her work, and all doubts are dispelled. She really is this strange and wonderful, and she really doesn’t care if you like it or not. While both Phair and Crow seem to put equal amounts of attention into their music and their status within the public consciousness, Apple makes loopy, heady records like her new Extraordinary Machine, which offers almost no ins for the radio-pop audience that embraced “Criminal.” Oh, and she took six years to get it together, an eternity in pop music time – you’d never see Sheryl Crow spend six years on an album.

There’s a story there, of course, and it’s that Machine is so nice, Apple made it twice. She scrapped the first set of takes, produced by her long-time cohort Jon Brion, and after a short break, started Version 2.0 with Mike Elizondo at the boards. In the meantime, the Brion sessions leaked, and some folks (actually, a lot of folks) assumed that Epic Records was sitting on them, refusing to release them. Apple now says it was all her, but what are we to make of Elizondo, a poppier producer who has worked with Sheryl Crow and Eminem?

Well, if the label shotgunned this marriage between Apple and Elizondo to smooth out and poppify Extraordinary Machine, they succeeded. His takes are much more accessible than Brion’s – the original versions of these songs are often beyond abstract, and yet strangely brilliant. Had Epic released the Brion tapes, Machine may have been the most difficult Difficult Third Album since OK Computer, which wouldn’t have been a bad thing. The first Machine is certainly more interesting, more layered, more fascinating than the new one, but I find I agree with Apple. It’s not finished.

Is the official version an improvement? In some ways. The songs are still delightful cabarets – Apple has always had a bit of Broadway about her, and these are her most theatrical songs. Brion dressed them up in orchestral clothes, turning ditties like “O’ Sailor” into huge outings, over which Apple’s distinctive voice was all but lost. The new “O’ Sailor” keeps the focus on the piano and vocals, and on the sweet melody. That’s Elizondo’s mission statement throughout – take out anything unnecessary, strip it all back and zoom in on Apple herself. The original Extraordinary Machine was a collaboration between artist and producer. The new one is a solo album, with the producer stepping back as much as possible.

The one new song bears that out. “Parting Gift” is just Apple and her piano, with no distractions. In a way, the Brion takes are all distractions, and while I certainly like some of them more than their official counterparts, I can understand wanting to go in another direction. “Not About Love,” for example, is a piano-and-strings excursion, serving as the opening shot on the Brion version. The new one is relegated to track 11, and it’s become a bare-bones, piano-bass-drums workout. It sounds like a completely different song. Or take “Used to Love Him.” It’s a cavalcade of martial drums and bells in Brion’s hands, and its new version, called “Tymps,” replaces all that with a clean electronic drum pattern. I hope it’s not heresy to say that I like the new version better – it brings out the gorgeous melody, the closest thing to a hook on the whole record.

Two of Brion’s productions have been preserved – the finger-plucked cartoon-ballad title track and the closing “Waltz (Better than Fine),” and their orchestral sweep does stick out. Otherwise, this is a crackling piano-pop album, in line with Apple’s previous work. The question is, was the change all Apple, or was it the label? The answer may help some decide if Apple belongs in the same league as Phair and Crow, with one ear towards working for the masses, or on another plane altogether, and we may never know. She’s calling the new Extraordinary Machine the real deal, and I guess it all depends on whether you think it’s an improvement over the first version.

But taken as the only version of these songs most people will ever hear, the album is sufficiently wonderful. I enjoy these process comparisons, but most people couldn’t care less – they will buy what’s in the stores, and Apple has delivered on her promise here. The songs are all left-field winners, the product of a distinctive voice, and under Elizondo’s care, it’s a voice that sits front and center, where we can better appreciate it.

I don’t care if Sheryl Crow ever makes another record, and while Liz Phair sounds like she’s on the right track, I can take or leave her. But six more years without a Fiona Apple album would be a shame. She’s a singular talent, the best thing to ever come out of the Lilith Fair era, and in retrospect, it seems silly to have lumped her in with that crowd to begin with. She doesn’t need a gender-specific touring movement to hitch her wagon to. Whichever Extraordinary Machine you listen to, with Apple at its center, you’re in for something that really is extraordinary.

Next week, Franz Ferdinand.

See you in line Tuesday morning.