LIZ PHAIR Whip-Smart (Matador)

I came late to the delights of Ms Phair's debut album, "Exile In Guyville": funny, smart and packed with terrific tunes, she sounded like the P J Harvey you don't have to wear black to like. Now, barely a year later, the difficult second album is with us, a strangely insurmountable obstacle for many female singer songwriters, as those of us who own Tracy Chapman's "Crossroads" or (cough!) Tanita Tikaram's "The Sweet Keeper" may be able to confirm.

For the first few hundred spins I feared that Liz Phair had succumbed to the same fate - the music and production seemed listless and uninventive, her singing sounded...well, when she claimed "I don't need a support system" it sounded more like she needed waking up! But, a few thousand plays later, "Whip-Smart" has sort of perked up: it's still nowhere near "Exile In Guyville", mainly because quite a few of the fourteen tracks are pale photocopies of their ancestors on that album, but in places, such as the kookily arranged "Shane" and "Dogs Of L.A.", the wry "Nashville", on which she quakes at the thought of "The naked half about to shave and go to work", and the joyous title track, belittled not a lot by stealing its chorus from Malcolm McLaren's "Double Dutch" (must be the first time anybody's ever bothered pilfering from him!) and "May Queen", there's enough to keep the faithful content. "Whip-Smart" is only an O.K. sort of album, and definitely not the best way to get into Liz Phair's elliptical brand of personal politics, but it's certainly far less of a disappointment than some more trumpeted albums from far more popular bands I've heard recently. Oops, what a giveaway!

LIZ PHAIR Whitechocolatespaceegg (Matador)

Liz Phair’s long delayed third album (originally slated for release a year before it eventually appeared) tragically fails to mark a return to the standards of the her visionary "Exile In Guyville" debut, a record that managed to presage and top anything Alanis Morissette will ever do whilst being almost terminally hip (namedropping Galaxie 500, amongst other lyrical delights), and became Village Voice’s album of the year, famously the first time the accolade had been awarded to a woman since Joni Mitchell picked it up for "Court And Spark" in 1974. Instead "Whitechocolatespaceegg" continues the downward spiral started on her last album "Whip-Smart", full of indistinct lyrics and unmemorable music, here aided and abetted by big names such as Scott Litt, Tom Lord-Alge and R.E.M. minus Stipey plus former drummer Bill Berry. Only one of the sixteen tracks here is worth playing twice: "What Makes You Happy" is so obviously different from the rest of this miserable collection that it sounds like its been lying around unplayed for years, possibly since the glory days of "Exile In Guyville" (an album you should seriously try to hear if you think that Alanis woman has got the last word on female angst). Otherwise, "Whitechocolatespacegg" is a massive, long-awaited disappointment.

LIZ PHAIR Exile In Guyville (ATO)

Claimed by its creator to be a track-by-track feminist riposte to “Exile On Main St.”, it’s hard to discern any correlation between the two albums aside from the facts that their titles both begin with the same word and in their vinyl incarnations their 18 tracks are split over four sides in the proportions five/four/five/four. Oh, and they’re both fantastic, of course.

Liz Phair’s 1993 debut remains as astounding and underappreciated today as it was on release, fully deserving this 15th anniversary slightly special edition from, of all places, Dave Matthews’ label. It mixes the Pavements lo-fi tunes and slacker humour with Cat Power/PJ Harvey-style righteous indignation and gender politics. What marks Phair out as extra-treasurable, though, is that she can court potty-mouthed controversy whilst simultaneously expressing devastating sadness and fragility, as “Fuck And Run”, “Canary” and “Flower” more than amply demonstrate. She also takes a scalpel to male stereotypes in “Soap Star Joe” and “Divorce Song”. The album’s crowing achievement, though, is “Stratford-On-Guy”, strangely, since its woozy, slow-burn psychedelia, encapsulated by the line “I was pretending that I was in a Galaxie 500 video”, is atypical of this wonderful record.

In this celebratory form “Exile In Guyville” arrives on 180 gram vinyl (or slightly over 180 grams in the case of my copy’s second disc, given that I had to drill out the centre hole before it would play nicely with my gramophone) with new sleeve notes, a 3-track bonus 7” promising, somewhat contradictorily, “unreleased b-sides” and a CD containing all the music found on both album and single. The extra tracks add little to our understanding of the whole, but they’re welcome anyway. The best is a slightly flippant cover of U-Roy’s “Say You”, interesting for the incongruous sound of Liz crooning lovers rock, but the somewhat unpromisingly titled “Instrumental” is crying out for a lacerating lyric to make it whole.