The back-story is impressive, I’ll grant you that. Lisa Loeb, who studied music theory at Brown University and briefly for a semester at Boston’s Berklee School of Music, remains the only unsigned artist in history to scale the commercial charts to #1. The hit single in question, 1994’s puppy-love anthem “Stay,” moved a not-so-timid 750,000 units and netted a Grammy nomination after Ben Stiller included it on the soundtrack to his filmic Gen-X manifesto, Reality Bites.
While “Stay” bogarted airwaves during the summer before my freshman year of high school, I was forced to split my affections between then-girlfriend Daniele and the Bespectacled Goddess of Cute drifting out of my Panasonic radio alarm clock. The shy pleading sincerity of Loeb’s music—which sounded every bit like the expertly folded notes girls clandestinely exchanged in the halls of my middle school—dangled the mystery of pubescent feminine sexuality in front of my nose like a carrot (think Fast Times At Ridgemont High).
Ten years later, the heady scent of watermelon lip gloss emanating from Loeb’s music—which once tickled my adolescent fancy—is more liable to turn my stomach. Her newest album, The Way It Really Is, uncomfortably straddles the cheeky teen-pop of Avril Lavigne (or fellow Canadian fun-punker Skye Sweetnam) and the self-serious confessionalism of singer/songwriters like Tori Amos and Ani DiFranco, glorifying the most insufferable tendencies of each.
The opener, “Window Shopping,” examines the consumer impulse as it relates to romantic relationships, answering the question: just how far can the metaphor of a “store return” be driven into the ground in the space of a three-minute pop song? Over a slow-funk acoustic guitar riff and disjointed percussion accents, Loeb coos with all the saccharine sexuality she can muster, “Try me on / Take me home / The tags are on / It’s still a loan / Warranty is in the sack / You can always take me back / And go / Window shopping again.”
We may have to wait until Loeb plays VH-1’s Storytellers to discover the inspiration behind the swirling pop-rocker “I Control The Sun,” but it seems to perfectly capture the frustration of a hopelessly romantic 11-year-old girl who has apparently, while taking a break from sketching unicorns, stumbled on Tolkien’s fabled One Ring of Power. Despite the fearsome, god-like powers afforded the ring’s possessor, her “crush” simply won’t cooperate: “I control the sun / I turn on the stars … I open up the sky / I control the speed / I can make the green lights flash / I can make you crash … But I can’t make you see things the way I see them.” Churning out searing Van Halen-style guitar licks, Loeb’s now ex-boyfriend and partner in pap, Dweezil Zappa, nobly attempts to rescue the song from its own dismal formula, but to no avail.
While the bulk of the songs on The Way It Really Is appear to have been written while jumping on the bed in cotton boxer shorts, singing into a hairbrush and/or shredding on air guitar, Loeb has also penned several tunes that will leave you sobbing uncontrollably into your Shirley Temple. “Try,” an earnest piano ballad featuring harmonies reminiscent of The Bangles (or, more recently, Wilson Phillips), borrows liberally from the most cloying inspirational platitudes of the Christian Contemporary hitmakers. Loeb, always a minor-chord change away from tears herself, sings, “What if you believed that the grass could grow up through the snow / It’s possible / You’d find / The mountains aren’t so high / If you’d only try / To do better than get by.”
Later on the record in “Accident,” yet another utterly nondescript acoustic ballad, Loeb turns her songwriting eye toward our culture’s not-so-guilty preoccupation with violence: “We crowd around the accident / We want to see the worst.” Her genuine concern with this troubling aspect of our culture might be applauded, if her lyrics weren’t so absurd as to leave us crying tears of laughter instead of grief. Redolent of the bewildering tragedy related in Michael Moore’s documentary Bowling For Columbine involving a 6-year-old child who totes an older relative’s gun to school and shoots an unsuspecting classmate, Loeb’s young character muses, “If I can poke her with a pencil / Then I can pop her with a gun.” The achingly precious delivery of these lyrics hijacks any power the subject matter might’ve possessed on its own merit, instead creating an unintentional Moore parody I’ll call Bowling For Chamomile.
Lisa Loeb’s heart is obviously in the right place. Sadly, her sentiments would be much better served on a blog (www.thewayitreallyis.com is still available). I can see the fluorescent pink template now, replete with Hello Kitty adornments and cartoonish renderings of the “cute animals” to which Loeb sends out a “very special thanks” in her album’s liner notes.