What can Liz Phair fans expect to hear when they cue up whitechocolatespacegg, the confessional singer/songwriter's upcoming third album, her first in four years?
It depends on whom you ask.
A "super deep" record, according to Matador Records co-president Chris Lombardi. And, he added, a record with a much bigger, more booming sound than Phair's previous albums.
"Full-on old-school Liz with some new beats," said album co-producer Brad Wood.
What's more, the 16-track disc -- due for release on Aug. 11 -- features cameos from R.E.M.'s Mike Mills (bass), Peter Buck (guitar) and ex-drummer Bill Berry (bongos) on the song "Fantasize," which also gets an assist from Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows/Tuatara.
Calling Phair's nearly four years away from recording time well spent, Lombardi said he's "super excited" about the new disc. "The fact is, she's spent the past three years working on songs and crafting her ability to create even more well-structured songs," Lombardi said.
While a number of lyrically direct, strong-willed, multi-platinum female songwriters such as Fiona Apple and Alanis Morissette have risen to prominence during Phair's absence, Lombardi said he thought whitechocolatespacegg would re-establish Phair's singular voice.
In addition to the singer's less confessional approach on this album than her previous works, Lombardi said, the material contains Phair's common themes of raunchy sexuality, offered, of course, from a female perspective. But as opposed to her female peers' hyper-confessional style of songwriting, Lombardi said Phair is still cutting her own path with a less sensational approach to the craft.
Five of the songs were produced by Wood -- who also produced Phair's critically acclaimed 1993 debut, Exile in Guyville, and her follow-up, 1994's Whip-Smart. The tracks he has overseen this time around are "Polyester Bride" (the first single), "Johnny Feelgood," "What Makes You Happy," "Uncle Alvarez" and "Go On Ahead."
"We just sort-of picked up where we left off three years ago," Wood said of the sessions, which took place earlier this year at Chicago's Velvet Shirt studio.
Four years ago, after working closely with Phair on her first two albums and playing drums in her live band, Wood had a professional falling out with the singer. But the in-demand producer (Smashing Pumpkins, Ben Lee, Menthol) stresses that the pair's problems "were never in the studio. In the studio, it's always been a real pleasure." He said he was excited to get the invitation to collaborate in late 1997.
The album also features production work from Jason Chasko, who wrote the music for the title track, and longtime R.E.M. producer Scott Litt, who is given a songwriting credit on the song "Baby Got Going."
So why has the album taken nearly four years and multiple producers to complete? "I don't know," Wood said. One explanation is that Phair gave birth to her first child, a son, in December 1996, after which she took some time off from recording.
"I think Guyville is a great record and Whip-Smart is a good record -- they set the bar pretty high," Wood said. "If you don't respect Liz's previous work, you're gonna be in trouble with her legion of fans. You have to be a fan of Liz Phair to make a great Liz Phair record. She's a phenomenal guitar player and a good singer. If you take the guitar out of her hand and start messing with that you get the new Coke and then everyone screams for Classic."
In addition to their production work, all three producers lent a hand in playing on the album. Chasko sat in on guitar, bass, drums, piano and backing vocals for a number of songs, and Litt added keyboards and violin to "Perfect World" and acoustic guitar, bass, harmonica, drums and backing vocals to "Baby Got Going." Assuming his old role, Wood got in the mix by playing guitar, bass, drums and organ on "Johnny Feelgood," as well as adding bass, drums and backing vocals to "Polyester Bride." One-time R.E.M. session musician Nathan December also pops up on several tracks playing guitar.
Phair handled her usual guitar duties, as well as playing piano on the song "Big Tall Man."
"I think this one is much better than the previous two albums," Lombardi said, "in terms of depth and quality of songs. She's obviously spent some time working on this record and it's only allowed her to grow as an artist."
Lombardi said the notoriously stage-shy Phair, currently playing dates on Lilith Fair, will launch a solo tour in September.
The full track listing of whitechocolatespacegg is: "White Chocolate Space Egg," "Big Tall Man," "Perfect World," "Johnny Feelgood," "Polyester Bride," "Love Is Nothing," "Baby Got Going," "Uncle Alvarez," "Only Son," "Go On Ahead," "Headache," "Ride," "What Makes You Happy," "Fantasize," "Shitloads of Money" and "Girls' Room."