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Weekly Alibi Tiny Tunes

By Michael Henningsen

OCTOBER 26, 1998: 

Alibi Rating Scale
!!!!!= Rocky Mountain high
!!!!= Cool buzz
!!!= Contact high
!!= Headache
!= Migraine

Liz Phair whitechocolatespaceegg (Matador)

I admit I was afraid it would suck: It's been four years since her last album; the release date was pushed back repeatedly, and three separate producers (Liz, Brad Wood and Scott Litt) are credited. Any one of these is cause for worry, and all three suggest Showgirls-level disaster. But the Chicago singer-songwriter's third album both consolidates the strengths of Exile In Guyville and Whip-Smart and eliminates their weaknesses. The occasional shock value lyrics have been jettisoned (when Liz mentions bikini-line shaving in the haunting "Girls' Room," it's poignant, not juvenilely titillating), along with her sometimes-shaky sense of song structure and arrangement. In their place are 14 smart, funny, pointed songs with strong, catchy melodies given a variety of sympathetic settings. "Polyester Bride" and "Go On Ahead" are particularly stunning. whitechocolatespaceegg doesn't sound as bracing or surprising as Guyville did in 1993, but those who suggested Phair was either a one-trick pony or a pretty-face hype are proven emphatically wrong. !!!! 1/2

The Negro Problem Post-Minstrel Syndrome (Aerial Flipout)

The name is certainly open to misinterpretation, but personally, I think it's brilliant. What could be a better name for a politically-aware pop band with a black singer-songwriter whose biggest influences are Jimmy Webb (whose "Macarthur Park" is respectfully, though irreverently covered), Burt Bacharach and '60s wimp-pop in general? Singer-songwriter Mark "Stew" Stewart is as adept with thoughtful, provocative lyrics as he is with sweet pop melodies and hooks; dig Jill Blair's wildly catchy piano lick in the giddily spinning "Buzzing," then go back and listen to Stew's snarled middle-eight about being "a credit to your race."

About a third of the album's 18 songs are quiet, nearly folky acoustic tunes with titles like "Doubting Uncle Tom" and "Heidigger In Harlem." Most of the rest are pop spectaculars like the Broadway-styled "Ghetto Godot," the fake-funk "Birdcage" and the astonishing multipart mini-operetta "Miss Jones." Blair's piano, organ and accordion are the backbone of these songs, with ex-Pandora Gywnne Kahn's ultra-melodic McCartney/Wilson-inspired bass and Charles Pagano's nimble percussion adding to the imaginative, kaleidoscopic arrangements. As lyrically provocative as songs like Blair's vocal showcase "Two-Inch Dick Mobile" and the journalism-bashing "Birdcage" are, it's the performances and Andrew Williams' crystal-clear but rough-edged production that really puts them over.

Post-Minstrel Syndrome (great album title, too!) is not completely perfect. The tape collage "Racket" is cute but not essential, and ... well, I'm sure there's something else wrong with it. This is one of those rare albums I would recommend to absolutely everyone. The Negro Problem prove both that pop doesn't have to be disposable and serious political lyrics don't have to be couched in boring, over-serious music. !!!!!

They Might Be Giants Severe Tire Damage (Restless)

If you don't like They Might Be Giants, this album won't change your mind and you can just stop reading, but Severe Tire Damage offers some interesting reinventions for fans. Since 1994, John Flansburgh and John Linnell have been backed by a full band and horn section. The bulk of the live material is devoted to rocking re-arrangements of old favorites like "Why Does the Sun Shine?" and "Ana Ng." Even the more faithful adaptations have a heft missing from the sometimes-anemic duo versions. Of the new material, "Dr. Worm" and "They Got Lost" ("John said to John, I think we make a left at the light/There should be a big crinkle assuming this map is right") are excellent, "Severe Tire Damage Theme," "First Kiss" and "About Me" are quite good, and the unlisted seven-part "Planet of the Apes" series at the end really should have been properly fleshed out. Severe Tire Damage is a fun time, but I'm looking forward to a proper studio album now. !!! 1/2

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