Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Liz Phair – Whip-Smart and whitechocolatespaceegg [Vinyl Reissues] (Album Review)

When Liz Phair announced her plans for the massive Exile in Guyville reissue to celebrate its 25th anniversary, her feverishly devoted fan base (presently company very much included) were also hoping the buzz would lead to some equally anticipated vinyl reissues for some of the other gems in her back catalog. Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait too long to hear the good news. This Friday (June 8), Capitol/UMe will be releasing a trio of Phair’s albums – Whip-Smart, whitechocolatespaceegg, and Liz Phair – all making their illustrious debut on 180-gram heavyweight black vinyl.

Whip-Smart was originally released in September of 1994, just a little over a year after the cannonball splash of her official debut album, Exile in Guyville. To say expectations were unfairly high for Phair’s follow-up is quite the understatement. However, she met the challenge of the sophomore slump head on by building on her sound instead of just trying to replicate the lightening-in-a-bottle explosion of her debut. Whip-Smart features some of Phair’s sharpest writing and the lead single “Supernova” quickly became a Top 10 hit on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart with an additional massive presence on MTV throughout the summer of 1994. The title track follow-up single landed Phair another radio hit (landing at #24) and overall the album peaked at #27 on the Billboard 200 that year.

This new vinyl reissue of Whip-Smart from Capitol/UMe is beautifully pressed on a single 180-gram black disc and the playback is full and superb. I’ve always been drawn to the Soviet-era propaganda meets lo-fi photography aesthetic of the album’s cover art and the color palette seriously pops on this reissue. Even though it’s a single album, the packaging is constructed in a sturdy gate-fold and the interior panels feature a cool collage of polaroids mostly shot by Phair herself. There’s also a single page paper insert that features the album credits. While I’ve got some serious teenage nostalgic ties to this album – it was one of the cornerstones of my inaugural “8 Albums for a Penny” Columbia House order when I was 14 – I can objectively confirm that this is a solid reissue anchored by a lush, heavyweight pressing and faithful to the original artwork and packaging. Capitol/UMe is also offering Whip-Smart on a 130-gram “orange smoke” variant.

Four years after the release of Whip-Smart, Phair released her third record, whitechocolatespaceegg. Continuing her intuitively creative album-to-album evolution, her songwriting included a bit more pop music influences and her lyrics reflected some of her recent real life transitions to being a wife and mother. Phair’s gift for intimate frankness and honesty were still very much in force on whitechocolatespaceegg and the tonal shifts in her music and lyrics revealed an artist who was still leading by her heart and instincts instead of letting precedents and expectations lead the way. “Polyester Bride” and “Johnny Feelgood” were both released as singles to respectable radio airplay and the album managed to still land in the mid-30s of the Billboard 200, even without a standout “hit” to be found within its tracklist.

The unpolished pop confidence of whitechocolatespaceegg rings through tastefully on this new vinyl reissue and I’m so glad that the album’s 16 tracks are spread out over two 180-gram discs instead of trying to cram them all onto one disc via a lower quality pressing. With four songs to each side of wax, the album is really given room to breathe in its unfolding. While I would’ve loved another gate-fold presentation like Whip-Smart, whitechocolatespaceegg’s two disc are housed in a single sleeve packaging with an additional full-color lyric sheet insert. Also, the understated cover art is refreshingly minimalist in its mixture of heavy black-and-white starkness with restrained splashes of yellow and blue. Much like Whip-Smart, Capitol/UMe is also offering another variant of this reissue, this time on 130-gram “yellow smoke” wax.

On the whole, vinyl reissues can always be a mixed bag depending on who is releasing them and how much attention and care are put into the project. For Whip-Smart and whitechocolatespaceegg, the quality of pressing and artwork recreation are both top notch, delivering an incredible experience for both the ears and eyes. I especially love the gate-fold layout of Whip-Smart and the double disc decision for whitechocolatespaceegg, both of which are elements where cutting corners could’ve cheapened the manufacturing costs but delivered a sub-par product. Kudos all around on these reissues and I highly recommend picking them both up to her these essential ‘90s albums in a high-quality vinyl presentation.

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