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Who’s most fickle the published pundits, the street-level tastemakers, or the marketing department? That’s probably the question foremost in Liz Phair’s mind.

Five years ago, when the brainy singer-songwriter played the part of the pissed-off slut-penitent, critics dug the dirty stuff (it helped keep us young, which is a big part of why we’re in the business), while a lot of indie kids were turned off by the implication that their scene could be as confining and joyless as some square-state Podunk. Phair became a critical darling and attracted a cult following of listeners who were indie-aligned but not so well connected that Exile in Guyville’s chronicle of bad love and bitterness threatened their existence. Her sophomore release was widely considered a disappointment, but she gave the best interviews of 1994, sharp and cynical about the biz, and became everybody’s idea of what a cover girl should sound like.

Phair now attempts market re-entry at a time when her personal circumstances (marriage, motherhood) won’t give her another Guyville, and the label guys won’t stand for another Whip-Smart, which went gold largely thanks to the afterglow of its predecessor’s street cred something they know is unlikely to happen again. whitechocolatespaceegg may be a polished, well-culled, stylistically varied collection of hooky new material, rather than a bunch of underproduced retreads off her Girly Sound bedroom tapes, but who’s paying attention after four years of silence broken only by bagatelles such as a Banana Splits theme song cover?

The glossies just aren’t going for Phair the way they used to. Rolling Stone does a fluffy Q&A and a favorable but puny strollin’-thru-the-trax review. Spin hands her a 6. Pulse! gives her the royal treatment, but then the circulation of Tower’s house organ is virtually unaffected by who’s on the cover. Meanwhile, Phair warms up for a fall tour by signing on for some Lilith dates and scores the coveted 5:45 p.m. opening slot, when she’ll play to the cars still crowding into the parking lot.

Because Phair is releasing her most accomplished record just as she threatens to become a pop-culture irrelevancy, it’s not entirely her fault that recent interviews make it look as if the Stones song she’s riffing on now is “Stupid Girl.” She’s actually the smart girl playing dumb in hopes of being popular not normally an act for which I have much sympathy. But for someone in Phair’s position, popularity isn’t mere social gravy; it’s essential for artistic survival.

The album got kicked back to her by the A&R guys, who were looking for a couple of hits, and the single release has gotten bumped around a few times. Phair knows how she’ll be treated if she fails to connect. Hence Lilith and a certain defensiveness. Phair protests that the tour isn’t a ghetto, because, hey, just look at all the sales represented by this roster, but she’s missing the point. Lilith isn’t a gender ghetto; it’s a taste ghetto. She may be united with her sisters by what’s in her belly, but she’s separated from them by what’s in her head.

In settling on a single, Matador has decided to forego “Johnny Feelgood,” whitechocolatespaceegg’s sole look back to the proven bad-girl persona, in favor of “Polyester Bride,” in which a younger but still brash Phair gets some sage counsel about freedom and recklessness from her “bartending friend.” It’s a wise move. Phair gets to re-establish herself on modern-rock radio with allusions to ambition and lust, but she doesn’t have to trade on an image she intends to abandon. “Bride” is also infectious enough that it ought to lure in even the die-hards who just can’t leave behind the swooping raptor-chick they first met on the cover of Guyville, and once they’re inside, “Johnny”‘s gonna treat them to a little tough love. Regardless of the initial opinion in the A&R department, these are by no means the only A-side possibilities on the album. Even if Matador had gone with the mommy-track title track, you can bet that it wouldn’t be recommended by Charles Aaron for “when you want to moisturize your face…with passion,” as Sarah McLachlan’s “Adia” was.

Whereas the betrayals of Phair’s boho days led her to make purgative music, a stable home life has forced her to focus on art, and she has started doing what just about every singer-songwriter of any longevity does write in character. She breathes poignant life into the family outcast of “Only Son,” limns the cattiness and closeness of a teen clique in “Girls’ Room,” and offers an AIDS patient’s ecstatic view of death in “Ride,” but she’s new enough to the game and still full enough of herself to cluelessly overestimate the significance of her contributions. In a Pulse! kaffeeklatsch with elder statesgirl Kim Gordon, Phair gushes, “I wrote songs as a man on this album, and I can’t think of anybody who’s done that before. I was really proud of that.”

Gordon sends girlfriend back to Rockschool firmly but politely. “I did,” she demurs, telling Phair about “Female Mechanic Now on Duty” and changing the subject without mentioning Laurie Anderson, Joan Armatrading, or the Au Pairs’ Lesley Woods (or anyone else in the A’s of my less-than-comprehensive record collection).

That spoken-word embarrassment aside, whitechocolatespaceegg succeeds where its predecessors failed in the listenability department. Whip-Smart was jam-packed with tuneless filler, off-kilter lyrics matched with droning dummy grooves that were never pitched out when Phair got past the demo stage. And the highly regarded Guyville didn’t exactly escape clean. Think about those songs in the middle of the album where you zone out and start thinking about “6’1″”‘s monster chorus. However attention-getting the words to “Flower” may have been, the infamous “Over the Rainbow” homage with the “blowjob queen” lyric isn’t a particularly gratifying piece of songcraft.

whitechocolatespaceegg is the first Phair record that demands the repeat button. She has retained the little idiosyncrasies the metrical quirks such as the extra syllables dangling at the ends of her lines, the mock-confessional/mock-conspiratorial use of her lower register that identify and endear her songs, but she puts them in service of the needs of pop a crucial development in the maturation of a writer who has customarily left the tune and the instrumentation ragged as long as the words were right.

While my inner Christgau keeps saying that part of what makes popular music interesting and important is that it’s popular, the rest of me can’t help hoping for the renaissance of what the Dean of American Rock Critics dubbed “semi-popular music.” (This was back in the ’80s, the heyday of such stuff.) Semi-pop is still viable enough that Gordon and her Sonic Youth brethren can survive within its borders indefinitely, but sustaining a career there requires a heavy release schedule, much touring, a full slate of side projects and guest appearances, and a singularly devoted fan base. (Don’t take my word for it ask Mark E. Smith.) Phair, however, has never been a roadhound or a workhorse, and she has done little to maintain her old listeners’ brand loyalty.

It may be Phair herself who ends up switching teams. The indie kids have always condemned her for being careerist, and they’re right about what she is. But they’re wrong to fault her for it; her record’s just too strong. Phair’s questionable associations and by-the-book femspeak should be seen for what they are: advertising and who doesn’t know how that works? If she doesn’t have a niche, she’ll make one even if it means being misconstrued.