Lisa Loeb has been an overlooked artist for most of her recording career. After the meteoric rise of “Stay” from her first CD, Tails, Loeb had difficulty maintaining and growing her audience despite the fact that her second album, Firecracker, was probably her strongest. It featured great songwriting and set the tone for her subsequent work, with ultra-catchy pop tunes interspersed with deeper and moodier coffeehouse ballads. Loeb’s next release, Cake and Pie, took a similar route, but offered a series of arrangements and productions by various producers that served as gorgeous settings for Loeb’s lyrics and music. When Geffen failed to promote Cake and Pie properly and it didn’t sell, Loeb repackaged the material, along with some new songs, and released it on Artemis Records as the album Hello Lisa.
Now, after a Food Network program that featured her and sometime beau Dweezil Zappa cooking, checking out culinary hotspots, and playing music, Loeb has a new record label (Zoe, a Rounder Records subsidiary) and a new batch of songs. Unfortunately, while The Way It Really Is is filled with Loeb’s trademark low-key delivery and highly-charged lyrics, it seems unlikely that it will reignite the singer’s career. Her problem is one of timing — she’s never quite the flavor of the month. When she emerged the music world was filled with female singer songwriters like Sarah McLachlan and Shawn Colvin, whose lyrics seemed much deeper and who had better voices than Lisa’s. Now that it’s all about Britney and Jessica, Lisa’s work is too quirky and intelligent for most pop audiences.
The Way It Really Is (titled after a track on Cake and Pie) starts off promising that things will be different with the track “Window Shopping.” Beginning with a slightly askew blues-oriented guitar riff, the track’s overall sound, as well as Loeb’s delivery, are delightfully singular for her. Perhaps the song leans a little too heavily on its metaphor comparing dating and relationships to consumer consumption, but it is clever and memorable. However, the rest of the album relies on Loeb’s well-worn fusion of brainy, shiny pop and introspective, folksy songs. “I Control the Sun” could have come off Cake and Pie or even an earlier album. One senses at times that Loeb wants to be in a band rather than having to soldier on as a solo artist. Many of her producers couch her vocals in a power pop sound that suggests her backup band could be XTC or an indie American band with a similar pop pedigree. This sound can be heard on “I Control the Sun” and on the album’s standout single “Fools Like Me”, and it works quite well, offering a light sound that belies some of the darker lyrical observations (“I think over is over / I’m right back where I started / I can’t have what I wanted”).
The deliberately darker-sounding folk/pop material is very representative of coffeehouse singer/songwriter tunes, but it manages to avoid the clichés that often surface in less skilled songwriters’ material. “Hand-Me-Downs” is an incisive look at an emotionally stunted relationship, and the lyrics have a new maturity and insight that just wouldn’t have been possible on earlier albums. “Try” seems like it shouldn’t work on paper — the song is an exhortation to someone who has given up on life, the type of thing that can so easily become mawkish-but sure enough, it works just fine. Loeb’s voice builds as the song progresses until it truly is inspiring. “Accident,” on the other hand, is a bit of a failed experiment. While the attempt at a more open structure than the normal pop song is much appreciated and the lyrics (about how we all secretly enjoy other peoples’ failures and pain) make interesting observations, the overall effect is fairly awkward, with the song eventually collapsing under its own weight. “Diamonds” is a rocker, with some crunchy, grunge-o-matic guitar work, and something of a departure for Lisa. It’s sharp and somewhat nasty, and definitely a welcome change from the rest of the album’s formula.
Lisa Loeb is a talented and clever pop songwriter who just hasn’t been able to get into the groove of writing hit records. Then again, maybe she doesn’t really want to. On The Way It Really Is, it sounds like she is out to please longtime fans and win new converts. The former will probably be delighted, but those who’ve not been fans of Lisa in the past probably won’t be swayed by the evidence on this CD.