No Fairy Tale
48:29 min • 429 Records • January 29, 2013
By rights, this should be a very different review. After my first listen I was ready to savage the new album by ’90s grunge-pop starlet Lisa Loeb. Sonically it struck me as unimaginative, radio friendly and, for want of a better word, samey. I wasn’t even sure if I even wanted to give it a second listen …
Since her debut with band Nine Stories in 1994, Lisa Loeb has been regarded outside of America and Japan as somewhat of a “one hit wonder” (a phrase I’ve always disliked when referring to an artist of higher calibre than Bob The Builder). Her first single, the acoustic grunge aria ‘Stay (I Missed You)’ became an international hit without her even having a record deal. In America her success continued throughout the ’90s and into the millennium, accumulating in a greatest hits album, yet still, in the UK at least, it’s that debut single that people will always remember. I’ve been a fan of Lisa’s for years and have devoured all of her studio albums, each feeling as good as the last, so I was almost shaking with anticipation when I pressed play on my iPhone to listen to her latest offering, and her first proper album in 8 years, No Fairy Tale.
For the first time we see Loeb collaborating with founding member of Florida Punk outfit New Found Glory, Chad Gilbert, a long time Lisa Loeb fan who wanted her to make a “punky-poppy-rock album”, and while the resulting album may not be as edgy and fresh as either of them had hoped, its certainly not as bad as I first thought.
Opener and title track ‘No Fairy Tale’, written with previous collaborator Maia Sharp, is a rocking tale about how real life disappointments are better for us than Fairy Tale endings. It saunters along nicely, and I can easily identify with the idea that real life stories are more interesting than their fairy tale counterparts. It’s a refreshing thing for an artist to confront the past head on, and in ‘The ’90s’, whilst telling the story of her rise to fame amidst the flower print dresses and guitars of her first album, she seems almost like she is speaking to me, especially with the line
You say you loved me then,
But I don’t wanna go back –
That’s me told, then. My hope for a ’90s style acoustic folk album out of the window, we move on to ‘Weak Day’ (ironically written for the acoustic album Lisa ditched in favour of this pop punk escapade) and with loving arms I embrace Lisa’s uniqueness as it washes over me. Written during the difficult time in her life when she had her own record label, ‘Weak Day’ is classic Loeb. The lyric,
I’m loaded on vodka,
Two straws and a soda.
You got me on a weak day….
was the first one to really hit me, which is strange for someone who is known for such strong and story-lead lyrical content.
‘Walls’ is instantly the best thing I’ve heard so far (and actually from Lisa in a long time).
I can’t tell you how I feel,
But listening to the radio playing my heart,
Sing the words I can’t say to you,
The way I’ve always wanted to –
clearly struck a chord with me, and that’s not where my empathy with the lyrics end. I find it interesting that, in a society where “growing up” involves shedding so-called “teen angst” in favour of “adult togetherness” (neither of which I feel I’ve done, by the way, even in my 30s), Lisa would make such a public declaration of what feels to me like exactly that – the angst that some of us never drop that “normal” people have got rid of – like acne. It’s a great song, and full of emotion that I can relate to.
Now a surprise – the first song that Lisa didn’t write … Written by indie darlings Tegan And Sarah (I know, I was excited too), ‘A Hot Minute’ is a fast-paced tale of a love stalker begging for a one night stand, and threatening all kinds of obsessive activity if she doesn’t get one. It’s a fun song, and Lisa makes it her own to the point that I was astonished she hadn’t written it. A long term fan, Tegan Quin obviously knows her writing style so intimately she can use it as her own, and it makes for great listening.
Elsewhere, the rocking ‘Matches’, with its brilliant opening lyric,
There’s wood for the fire,
But there’s no matches –
feels like the Loeb of yesteryear and makes me breathe a sigh of relief, the brilliant ‘Married’ confronts the very grown up problem of falling in love with a married man (and let’s face it, most of us have been there) and the gorgeous ‘Ami, I’m Sorry’ would fit perfectly on any of her previous albums. Tegan And Sarah also penned ‘The Worst’, a great song about the worst of life being there to comfort you, that feels oddly uplifting.
To a certain extent, No Fairy Tale is business as usual for Lisa Loeb. Now, I wasn’t expecting a dubstep acoustic fusion (although that would have been interesting) but I did expect something a bit more … exciting. For me, Lisa’s music has never been about banality. It’s been about introspection, naked emotion and luscious melodies, all performed with her distinctive fragile delivery. Unfortunately far too much of No Fairy Tale fails to make an impact, with its over-polished, heavily radio friendly aesthetic. That’s not to say it’s bad – in fact, the total opposite is true. It’s a great album of catchy pop folk songs, it just feels all too familiar.
On first listen I wasn’t sold on this new collection of songs. I’ve always favoured Lisa’s more melancholy moments to her rom-com bating slick uptempos and, as I got older, seem to have little tolerance for over polished American output. Just when I was hoping Lisa would go back to her roots and reconnect to her diehard audience through a beautifully written acoustic album, she has simply made a pop folk album, with little or no depth or musical light and shade. One thing it does do in places, which feels like a stroke of genius to me, is speak to the adult and the teenage in me at the same time. The ferocious pop punk production appeals to the teenage me that dragged himself across Oxford in blazing heat to see Cruel Intentions in the cinema, all the while eating cheese popcorn and listening to Lisa’s debut album Tails, whilst the lyrics reflect my life as it exists now as a fully fledged adult. However, the down side is this fully fledged adult also sees through the glossy pop production and yearns for something more … begs for a way to grab onto these songs for more than a five minute bop in my bedroom. Several of them have rooted themselves into my brain on further listening, and it’s a testament to Lisa’s writing that, on my second and third listens, I was able to penetrate through the production and hook myself into this album.
Maybe I’m being unfair – all too often I can write off a great album just because it isn’t what I want from that artist at that time, and this could be what I’m doing with No Fairy Tale … the music fan in me just thinks she is worth more than a retread of her previous albums, only with less of the emotional weight. Once I got over myself there is a lot to like about this album, I just hope that her next album is the planned acoustic album I was so yearning for.
If you like your singer songwriters with gloss, this album will serve you perfectly from day one. If you like them with style and depth then approach with caution, but I’m pretty sure once you let yourself go you’ll get sucked in like I did.