Like Duncan Sheik '92, who once played guitar behind Brown's dynamic duo Liz and Lisa, Lisa Loeb marched out the Van Wickle Gates and right to the top of the pop charts. Her 1994 number-one hit "Stay (I Missed You)," which was featured in the movie Reality Bites, was an unprecedented coup for an unsigned artist, and with her band Nine Stories she quickly found herself recording Tails for Geffen. Two years later she serenaded the first Lilith Fair all-women's tour and released a follow-up, Firecracker, that further established her as a graceful songwriter with a winsome voice and a refreshingly streamlined acoustic/electric pop style.
Now, five years later, after relocating from Right to Left Coast and launching an acting career on film and TV (House on Haunted Hill, The Drew Carey Show), Loeb returns to the record-making business with Cake and Pie. The combination of between-you-and-me intimacy and poppy energy that made "Stay" so inviting remains intact, but a large cast of collaborators tugs Loeb's music in numerous directions. Most prominent among those collaborators is Dweezil Zappa (Loeb's outside-the-studio companion), who cowrote two songs, coproduced many of them, and supplies classic rock guitar moves that give Loeb's sound new instrumental punch. "You Don't Know Me," which depicts the self-conscious strutting of a girl with her first boyfriend, kicks off with a spiky Van Halen riff, while "Too Fast Driving" gets about as punky as this constitutionally soft-edged artist is likely to get.
On other cuts Loeb cowrites with high-profile hit-makers, including modern-rock alchemist Glen Ballard (cowriter and producer for Alanis Morissette and Dave Matthews, among many others) and Nashville cats Randy Scruggs and Gary Burr. Several songs were written for movies ("We Could Still Belong Together" was heard in Legally Blonde).
This profusion of influences and ingredients may broaden Loeb's stylistic range, but it also obscures her point of view. The songs she wrote alone or with Zappa show more character than the hit-maker collaborations, which have their hooks right in place but come across as a tad generic - personal revelation by committee.
According to Loeb, the CD title asks: Why settle for cake or pie when you can go for both? Her music, too, shoots for multiple options - not just in the songwriting but in the production, from 1970s-style string-sweetened rock, to acoustic chamber settings, to what sound essentially like songwriting demos. There's nothing wrong with diversity, but in this case the disc as a whole comes off more like a collection of tracks created for other purposes than the kind of single artistic conception we expect from singer-songwriters (a quality that's shared, it's worth noting, by more and more records in this age of digital downloads). Tasty but not quite a full meal, Cake and Pie is best enjoyed piece by piece.
Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers ( www.jeffreypepperrodgers.com) is, the author of Rock Troubadours and the Beginning Guitarist's Handbook.