Liz Phair won a loyal group of fans in the late 1990s with sassy, original indie albums like her parody of The Rolling Stones, Exile in Guyville. But some wrong turns in the new millennium, including moving into glamor-pop, made her a parody in the eyes of many supporters. She’s spent the last decade trying to get back to her roots, and the new album Soberish (Chrysalis) takes her a long way there.
The best songs aren’t the highly promoted ones, like the ode to Lou Reed, “Hey Lou” (a bit dated and snarky, coming so long after his death). Instead, the simple tracks on love and longing, like “Spanish Doors” and “In There,” display a kindness unusual for Phair. She knows how to use memorable riffs, and crafts the songs to maximize her vocal style, which doesn’t have a broad range, but has an unforgettable honey tone. She gains the most by not trying too hard.
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Crowded House, Dreamers Are Waiting (EMI Music/BMG) – New Zealand songwriter Neil Finn put his Crowded House project on hold to tour with Fleetwood Mac, and it’s been more than a decade since they’ve had a proper album. The re-formed quintet features his sons Liam and Elroy, along with U.S. producer Mitchell Froom on keyboards. Opening track “Bad Times Good” carries suggestions of Fleetwood Mac, while the best tracks like “Sweet Tooth” and “Goodnight Everyone” feature the lush production Finn favors. Sure, there are moments when the orchestration might overwhelm the songwriting, but fans who still sing “Don’t Dream It’s Over” will love the new Crowded House for precisely that reason.
Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee, (Dead Oceans) – In two previous albums and a new bestselling memoir, Michelle Zauner emphasized sadness and the struggle of growing up Asian-American/Pacific Islander (she is of mixed Korean/Jewish parentage). Her third album, however, is closer to an ode to joy, albeit with minor-key embellishments. From the opening notes of “Paprika,” it’s obvious Zauner prefers small-ensemble orchestration akin to bands like Beirut or Shearwater, but with every succeeding track, she makes it clear that dancing takes precedence over musical perfection. Jubilee isn’t just beautifully structured art rock — it’s a happy rock album for parties.