In its own earnest, peasant-skirted, incense-dosed manner, last year’s Lilith Fair tour forcefully shoved a number of lessons down the throats of the music industry. It proved, for instance, that an all-women tour could (a) be taken seriously, (b) attract large crowds and make a profit, (c) embody not merely the heightened status of women in pop but also the new sincerity and romanticism of the post-alt-rock universe, and (d) attract men, even if they were goobers who came to ogle Jewel.
Now comes the souvenir, Lilith Fair: A Celebration of Women in Music, a double-disc compilation recorded at various stops on the tour and featuring 26 of its participants. (It’s also a semi-benefit album, with half the proceeds going to rape, abuse, incest, and AIDS organizations.) It turns out we can learn a thing or two from the album as well, including lessons not even troop leader Sarah McLachlan may have intended.
A DOSE OF INDIE ROCK WOULD HAVE BEEN NICE Grrrl rockers were dubious of Lilith, and not simply because of its prissy name. Acting as if distaff punkers like Sleater-Kinney and Fluffy didn’t exist, the organizers leaned toward musicians who specialized in genteel, touchy-feely, sensitivity-session pop. Lilith did, on occasion, rock—the show I caught featured a blistering, gritted-teeth set by Juliana Hatfield. Alas, the album’s idea of energy amounts to clunky, mannered arena rock from Meredith Brooks and Tracy Bonham or the overly placid indie pop of September 67. Exception: the Wild Colonials’ bounding “Charm.”
THE TOUR TRULY WAS LILITH-WHITE Another criticism leveled at Lilith was that it served up genteel, touchy-feely, sensitivity-session white pop. Again, the discs support this carping all too well—they’re dominated by encounters with intent, humorless folkies of the Caucasian kind. Dar Williams takes us through her therapy sessions in “What Do You Hear in These Sounds,” while a wan, verse-trading rendition of the folk song “The Water Is Wide” (with McLachlan, Jewel, and the Indigo Girls) is the stuff of Pottery Barn in-store playlists. Organizers may have to hire more paramedics for this summer’s tour; the slew of soul sisters joining in, including Erykah Badu and Missy Elliott, could give the audience a collective heart attack.
ANY JOKES ABOUT CANADA ARE WELL DESERVED How is it that the same country that gave us Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Kate and Anna McGarrigle now offers up the tepid, Lilith-album likes of Tara MacLean and the Wild Strawberries? As if to rub the country’s nose in it, Emmylou Harris here sings Anna McGarrigle’s exquisite “Going Back to Harlan,” a warm-and-fuzzy lament that also manages to be as rugged as a patch of western Canadian forest.
THE ’80S WERE A LONG TIME AGO Singing an unplugged version of “Eternal Flame,” ex-Bangle Susanna Hoffs can, at least here, no longer hit the goosebump-inducing high note at the end of the song.
BANK ON THE NEW FRENCH POP From the cute electro-ditties of Air to the whimsical disco-tech of Daft Punk, the Parisian music scene isn’t just making a comeback–for the first time in decades, it has a scene worth exploring. Lilith’s contribution is the Parisian trio Autour De Lucie, whose “Sur Tes Pas” matches bristling guitars with singer Valerie Leuillot’s careful whisper. L’encore!
NOT EVERYONE, MALE OR FEMALE, KNOWS WHAT’S GOOD FOR THEM “The dog in you/Spit me out into the Mississippi,” whoops and screeches Paula Cole on her contribution, “Mississippi.” It’s just one of many songs here in which women ignore their best cranial instincts and place themselves in dubious relationships. Cheating, lying, two-timing male puds are the subjects of Cole’s and Bonham’s tracks, the Cardigans’ “Been It,” Joan Osborne’s “Ladder,” and Lisa Loeb’s “Falling in Love.” The album gives the phrase “shared experience” multiple meanings. (Could this also be the reason the numerous male backup musicians are uncredited?)
NOT EVERYONE, MALE OR FEMALE, KNOWS WHAT’S BEST FOR A COMPILATION It’s one thing to celebrate “the diverse mix” of the tour by concentrating on up-and-comers. It’s another to omit some of the most prominent Lilithites—Fiona Apple, Sheryl Crow, Tracy Chapman—in favor of pale-voiced Jewel imitators and rockers whose idea of roots is Pat Benatar. Plus, the big wheels who are here, like Cole, Brooks, Osborne, Loeb, Shawn Colvin, and Suzanne Vega, aren’t represented by their best-known, or best, songs. The ultimate lesson to be gleaned is dispiritingly simple: As an album, Lilith is only fair. B-