Plenty of artists peak early; Lisa Loeb’s career highlight came after one self-released cassette. She topped the Billboard Hot 100 with “Stay (I Missed You),” from the Reality Bites soundtrack, for three weeks in August 1994, more than a year before Geffen got around to putting out Tails. Sales certainly suffered as a result of the lag time, and her follow-up singles failed to make much of an impact. To her credit, she never stopped working. She’s still writing, recording and performing, in addition to starring in reality shows, sending poor children to camp and marketing quirky eyeglasses. Of late, she’s been busy making kids and records for kids.
Loeb’s latest release, No Fairy Tale (429 Records), is the first she’s recorded for adults in more than eight years. She shares writing credits on the two best tracks with New Found Glory guitarist Chad Gilbert; “Walls” is a pretty, downbeat rocker that, like “Stay,” finds Loeb figuring out her feelings via something she heard on the radio, while “The ’90s” is a gentle pop-punk poke at her younger self. “So alternative, just like everybody else/ In the mainstream,” she sings knowingly. There’s also a sweetly assertive title track,two glossy tunes by Tegan and Sara and a few scenes of mild domestic turmoil.
Of course, there’s nothing that approaches “Stay,” which could have been too cloying, too wordy and too meta. Instead, it was the perfect three-minute pop song, from Loeb’s first acoustic guitar lick to her last plaintive note. “I turn the radio on, I turn the radio up/ And this woman was singing my song,” she sings, and in the process made listeners feel the same way. Sure, the pacing and production are straight outta the ’90s, and Loeb’s band, Nine Stories, seems more an excuse for a Salinger reference than a cohesive musical unit. But the track’s shortcomings only add to its charm.
As for the rest of Tails, only “Do You Sleep?” gets the alt-rock romance ratio right: one part wistful jangle, one part accusatory crunch. If deeper cuts like “It’s Over” and “Sandalwood” are satisfying in smaller ways, “Hurricane” is too ponderous, “Taffy” too angsty and “Garden of Delights” too self-consciously casual. Hey, that’s the ’90s for you.
Lisa Loeb plays World Café Live on March 24.