Album Review: Lisa Loeb — No Fairy Tale

Last weekend I was wandering about in an antique/ephemera mall that also housed a coffeehouse (this is Asheville; you routinely find such things here). There was an acoustic guitar singer-songwriter type of middling to good ability purveying his tunes to the assembled coffee drinkers. He wasn’t bad, but his original songs were a bit run-of-the-mill for my tastes, so I kept rifling through the piles of old Paul Revere and the Raiders LPs. Eventually he threw in a cover, and it was (for me, anyway) the best tune of the set. But his choice of, um, “oldie” was something totally unexpected. He ran through a credible reading of Oasis‘ “Chapagne Supernova” from their 1995 album (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? It was a bit of sweet nostalgia for me, because I love that whole album. I still play it at least once a month.

And so I’m reminded that there was quite a lot of really good, tuneful music on the rock/alternative/whatever charts in the 90s. It was but a year before “Champage Supernova” that Lisa Loeb‘s “Stay (I Missed You)” ruled the airwaves. Thanks in no small part to its prominence as part of the Reality Bites soundtrack, the wistful tune – with a sweet melody and Loeb’s fetching voice – gave Loeb a #1 charting single before she had even inked a record deal.

I will admit I didn’t follow her career after that. But neither did I ever change the station when the song came on; had I listened to a lot of radio, I might have found the song overplayed. But as it was, I liked it, and still do.

Lisa Loeb is still busy recording and releasing albums. While her tenth album (2011’s Lisa Loeb’s Silly Silly Sing-Along) was made for kids, her most recent is most definitely aimed at an older market. No Fairy Tale was initially released in 2013, but of late it’s been getting a renewed marketing push, with vinyl copies (with different cover art, more of which presently) sent to reviewers who respond with interest.

No Fairy Tale is quite good, though not in the way that “Stay” was, or, I suspect (but cannot verify) in the way her kid-themed album was successful. The songs have, if you’ll pardon the dated reference, a sort of Riot Grrl vibe to them. Loeb (on vocals, electric and acoustic guitars) is ably supported by her co-producer Chad Gilbert on guitar, with Colin Strahm on drums plus a handful of other musicians on various tracks.

It’s worth noting, perhaps, that one of those other musicians is one Brad Wood, who also mixed No Fairy Tale. Wood is best known as a producer himself, and his best known production is Liz Phair‘s Exile in Guyville. He’s also worked the boards for Veruca Salt and The Bangles. So it’s safe to say he knows how to help female rockers get the sound they want.

None of which is intended to take away from Loeb’s talents. About half of the twelve tunes were written by Loeb herself, and most of the remainder are co-writes. The two songs she didn’t pen herself were composed by Tegan and Sara (Quin), credible female indie rockers themselves.

But it’s still Loeb’s show all the way. No Fairy Tale rocks far more often than it doesn’t. The opening title track kicks off with crunchy power chords worthy of The Who. The power trio of Loeb, Gilbert and Strahm charges through the song, and Loeb’s tightly arranged overdubbed vocals make “No Fairy Tale” a statement of grown-up purpose in a modern world.

Loeb doesn’t kid around: she’s got a riffy rocker called “The ’90s” that mentions videos, name checks MTV, and tells listeners, “You say you loved me then, but I don’t want to go back.” Her wry, acerbic wit and refreshing self-awareness are on full display as she sings, “So alternative, just like everybody else in the mainstream.”

Even when she runs through a more plaintive, contemplative number like “Weak Day,” Loeb delivers it in the manner of a rocker who’s dialing it down, rather than a folkie who finally gets to play with fewer of those nasty electric guitars. “Walls” is another appealing rocker with a soaring melody. For “A Hot Minute,” Loeb spits out the lyrics at top speed, right in line with the song’s urgent tone. She teases with the lyric, “I”m not asking for forever / I’m just asking for tonight,” but the remaining lyrics suggest that she knows the object of the song feels pretty much the same way, at best. In its own way, “A Hot Minute” (one of the Tegan and Sara tunes) is more forthright than anything on the supposedly nakedly confessional Exile in Guyville.

The shifting tempos of the folk-rocker “Sick, Sick, Sick” show that Loeb’s got a lot going on musically, but she couches it all in winning, tuneful and memorable songcraft.

Side Two kicks in with “Matches,” another chugging rocker that Cheap Trick wouldn’t be embarrassed to include on one of their albums. “Married” is a cautionary message to a friend (“He’s married / you don’t know what you’re doing”). “Swept Away” is a midetempo rocker with another strong melody, made even better by the overdubbed vocals and multiple-guitar leads that evoke not the 90s but the 70s.

“He Loved You So Much” is a sort of rock answer to the sort of song Loeb did nearly two decades ago with “Stay.” And on “”Ami, I’m Sorry,” Loeb does (briefly) return to her folkie singer-songwriter roots, with a song of heartbreak. Gilbert and Wood are on hand, but their contributions are nearly inaudible, and – it seems – not really needed. The album wraps with “The Worst,” a sort of campfire pop tune that offers words of encouragement (“Don’t worry; the worst is there to comfort you”). A lovely end to a lovely record.

The special repackaging of No Fairy Tale features a cartoon image of Loeb, who in actual photos looks a bit like a bespectacled cross between Jennifer Garner and Rachael Ray. And each of these special LP versions is personalized with Loeb’s autograph and brief message. Hey, if it’s a shameless marketing ploy, it’s done for a good reason: it got me to listen to a wonderful album by an artist whose name I knew, but whose catalog I did not. Fair enough. Lisa Loeb’s No Fairy Tale is highly recommended.

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