Gemma & Cat

The backlash against Liz Phair’s new album by fans and critics alike has been so consistently negative and, at times, vitriolic, I’ve begun to wonder if a backlash against the backlash will occur. Rolling Stone gave her album three stars, while giving Jay Farrar’s two, who deserves more than that on reputation alone. And if Rolling Stone is not basing record reviews on reputation, then I don’t know what to believe. After all, Liz Phair’s cute as a button and her timid stage presence are still very winning. Unfortunately, that stuff called the music would still seem to get in the way of any possible reconciliation between Liz and her fans. In fact, revisiting her recent self-titled release (which happened to me while I was shopping for cereal and her new single started playing on the grocery store’s background audio system which, I believe, is designed to make people hungry with music so bland that it triggers a sub-conscious desire for anything with flavor) would only make a fan angrier. Here are a couple of alternatives.

For fans of later-era Liz, the new album by Irish singer Gemma Hayes offers a pleasant mix of straight forward rock and electronic flourishes similar to whitechocolatespaceegg. Harmonicas, mellotron, and slide guitars waft in and out like a breeze. Mid-tempo rockers dutifully punctuate the graceful ease of her slow numbers, all blanketed by one pretty voice. It’s slick and polished but not annoyingly so. It’s certainly not the most exciting thing you’ll hear this year, and if Liz had made it, it might have been labeled good, but more of the same in a creatively torpid career. This is Gemma’s first album, however, and hopefully a sign of things to come.

For fans of early-are Liz, the album Cat Power (aka Chan Marshall) released in February might be a welcome revelation. Its got the do-it-yourself feel of someone who still believes “yourself” is what matters most, not record sales. Going from sparse to teeming and back again, layered vocals and confessional lyrics infuse the record with a real sense of urgency. “We all do what we can / So we can do just one more thing / We can all be free / Maybe not in words / Maybe not with a look / But with your mind” she sings on the yearning, piano-ballad call to arms. There are not enough hooks to maintain the albums 14-song length, but it still manages to be a focused statement of presence.

On a scale of cereal, where Bedrock Blizzard Fruity Pebbles are a 1 and Cracklin’ Oat Bran is a 10, Gemma Hayes’ Night on Your Side is a bowl of Golden Crispix, the numerical equivalent of a 7.3. Cat Power’s You Are Free is a bowl of Frankenberry, the numerical equivalent of a 7.5.