It isn't the words but the music that makes Phair and O'Connor worth a listen


Say what you will for equality between the sexes, but the sad truth is that rock and roll women never get an even break.

When Mick Jagger filled the Rolling Stones' "Exile On Main St." with frank commentary on carnal relations, all that critics could talk about was how he recontextualized the spirit of the blues. But when Liz Phair assembled her debut album, "Exile In Guyville," as a female response to the Stones' "Exile," nobody said anything about the blues -- the reviewers were too busy quoting lyrics about her sexual practices.

Likewise, after John Lennon commented that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus," he was quickly forgiven by fans who stressed that he was just making a comment on society. But when Sinead O'Connor tore up a picture of the pope on "Saturday Night Live," hardly a soul sprang to her defense; as far as most folks were concerned, she was just a publicity-seeking wacko.

So when it turns out that Phair's new album, "Whip-Smart" (Matador/Atlantic 92429), is full of songs about sex and perversity, while O'Connor's "Universal Mother" (Chrysalis 30549) is packed to the gills with political pronouncements, odds are that most of the discussion about these albums will focus on what these women have to say.

A pity, that. Because at bottom, what makes these albums worth hearing is the music, not the words.

Start with Phair. All it takes is a couple of spins before "Whip-Smart" begins to work its magic, reeling the listener in with the driving fuzz-guitar of "Supernova," the snaky, blues-tinged cadences of "X-Ray Man," and the perky "When they do the double-dutch" chorus of the title tune. In fact, were it not for Phair's promiscuous use of profanity, her album could easily become a staple of alternative rock radio.

Ah, but Phair's fondness for the F-word is only part of the problem. Unlike Madonna, whose lascivious lyrics take a traditionally heavy-breathing approach to eroticism, Phair specializes in an unnerving, drop-dead cool. "Chopsticks," for instance, opens the album with her protagonist deciding that the guy she picked up at a party is "just fine with me" because she'll be able to watch TV while they make out. Romantic, this ain't.

Yet as bawdy and blunt as these songs are, it's hard to think of Phair as a bimbo. For one thing, her singing avoids the squeaky girlishness usually associated with pop tarts, opting instead for a low, conversational tone that seems to emphasize the so-what? deadpan of her narratives. For another, much of the attitude she exudes is just the female equivalent of the bedroom bravado male rockers have been practicing for almost four decades (change the "you" to "I" in "X-Ray Man," and it's astonishingly easy to imagine Jagger singing it).

But what matters most in Phair's work is its emotional intensity. The most striking thing about "Jealousy" isn't the way its lyrics describe a woman obsessing over photos of her lover's ex-girlfriends, but the way the music's itchy intensity helps us feel her protagonist's rage. In moments like that, Phair isn't just whip-smart -- she's brilliant.

O'Connor, too, has an ability to convey tremendous emotion through music, although in her case, it's less a matter of songcraft than sheer vocal expression. As a result, it's easy to share the joy, anguish, gratitude and pain she expresses in "Universal Mother." The tricky part is understanding why she feels that way.

Granted, some songs are obvious enough. "My Darling Child" is precisely what its title suggests -- a love song to her son -- while "Red Football" sketches its anti-abuse message in almost painfully blunt images:

I'm not no red football

To be kicked around the garden

No, no

To understand the rest of the album, though, it helps to know that O'Connor has spent much of the last two years talking about the abuse she endured from her mother as a child. But "Universal Mother" goes much further than articulating O'Connor's personal trauma; its songs see everything in terms of parent-child relationships.

O'Connor pushes that to the limit in "Famine," which suggests that the root of Ireland's social troubles is that the country itself was treated like an abused child (Gerry Adams, call your therapist.) "Fire On Babylon" is equally extreme, since it seems to suggest that the only real answer to an abusive parent is a call for Armageddon.

Still, when O'Connor connects with a tune, it hardly matters how much sense the lyrics make on paper -- coming through the speakers, she leaves you feeling every syllable. Her version of Nirvana's "All Apologies" is a good example, cutting through the song's knotted imagery to grasp the helplessness at its core. BTC But the album's crowning glory is undoubtedly "Thank You for Hearing Me," which, with its bone-simple melody and deep, hypnotic pulse, expresses a gratitude so heartfelt and self-effacing it seems more like a prayer than a song.


To hear excerpts from Liz Phair's "Whip-Smart" and Sinead O'Connor's "Universal Mother," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6183 after you hear the greeting.

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