Lisa Loeb was the only unsigned recording artist in history to score a number one single. Her song, “Stay” was written for the film Reality Bites at the suggestion of Loeb’s neighbor, actor Ethan Hawke, and sold more than 750,000 copies worldwide after being included on the film’s soundtrack album. Geffen Records subsequently signed Loeb and her first album Tails, featured not only the singer’s folky love-gone-wrong ballads but also a significant number of more rock-oriented songs like “Taffy”. Nonetheless, Loeb was lumped into the “girl singer/songwriter” category even though she was seriously at odds with the Lilith Fair-shaped sounds of artists like Shawn Colvin and Paula Cole. She performed on the Lilith tour each of its four years, her wistful brainy-girl-in-cat-eye-glasses persona belying the insightful, sometimes tough look she took at modern romance.
In 1997 Geffen released Firecracker to good reviews and mediocre sales, even though the disc earned Loeb a Grammy nomination and an opening slot on tours with The Wallflowers and Chris Isaak. Again, there was a lot more to the album than met the eye, with songs like “Furious Rose”, “Dance With the Angels”, “This”, and “Split Second” offering much more than the casual listener to “Stay” would have expected. The incendiary title track that concluded the album seethed with menace and anger, clearly demonstrating how Lisa had grown as a songwriter in just two years.
Loeb’s newest disc Cake and Pie, is both familiar and new. Loeb clearly enjoys working with other musicians and combining ideas and sounds, and the new album is the result of collaborations with musicians as disparate as Randy Scruggs, Dweezil Zappa, Glen Ballard, and Peter Collins. “Though I wrote many of the songs myself, this record is ultimately a collaborative effort,” says Loeb. “I wanted to write, produce and play with as many people as possible to bring a sense of diversity to the project.” The result is an album that sometimes sounds more like a band effort than a singer with backing musicians, the more layered studio sound adding aural depth to Loeb’s already lyrically substantial songs.
The album’s catchy first single “Someone You Should Know” is programmed as the fifth song on the disc, and though the first four tracks are catchy, they are much lower key than one might expect from a songwriter who can write incredible hooks that won’t leave your mind for months after you hear them. “You pull me in close just to push me aside / Goodbye / Everyday love turns its back just to stand in my way” she sings on “Everyday”, a song about the realization that the person you are with no longer feels the way you do about the relationship. Her observations can be both cutting and poignant: “Goodbye my love / I’m going away / I know you won’t follow me far / Once I went out just to look at the stars / I asked you to join me but you were too tired / I wanted you / To see them too.” Loeb knows it’s not just the big issues and events that inform relationships, but the details, the intimate moments between people that spell success or failure for love. The couple in “Kick Start” knows they are in trouble, but seem powerless to get themselves out of it: “Trying so hard / To dig ourselves out / ‘cause we’re stuck and we’re scared and we’re thinking / Things have to change / It’s the thoughts that don’t count / Can’t something be done? / Don’t let this decision drag on.” There’s sadness and melancholy in Loeb’s delivery, but there’s hope, too.
There are also some interesting songs about female characters at odds with their lives—the girl in “You Don’t Know Me” (an XTC-infectious piece of pop candy) leaves her girlfriends behind for the high of a new relationship that may or may not be right for her. “She doesn’t know that we know / That we’ve been here before” Loeb sings. “She’s Falling Apart” ends the album on a darker note, much like “Firecracker” but not quite as lyrically incisive. Anorexia is a difficult subject and one that has been addressed quite a bit, but Loeb tackles it in her understated fashion and avoids being heavy-handed. The bare bones acoustic guitar and bass leaves plenty of room for Loeb to paint the picture of a girl whose family pretends not to notice her eating disorder.
There’s still plenty of poppy hooks in Lisaland, though, and “We Could Still Belong Together” (from the Legally Blonde soundtrack) is as shiny as anything Lisa has done, as are “Someone You Should Know”, “You Don’t Know Me”, and the total ‘60s garage band blowout “Too Fast Driving”. Let’s hope this album demonstrates to both hardcore Lisa Loeb fans and those who’ve not listened closely since “Stay” that with Lisa you really can have both Cake and Pie.