In the summer of ’94, a smart, sensitive take on modern relationship travails popped off the Reality Bites soundtrack to become the first single by an unsigned artist to ever top the Billboard chart. With the success of “Stay (I Missed You),” New York singer/songwriter Lisa Loeb became a hot property with a pretty voice, horn-rimmed glasses and a millstone around her neck. Beginning your career at the top leaves little room for missteps.
Far from an arriviste sensation, Loeb had been performing with her unstable band, Nine Stories (so named in collegiate tribute to J.D. Salinger), in local clubs since 1990. Long before her lucky break, the result of a friendship with actor Ethan Hawke, the Texas émigré had committed ten songs to tape and sold an untitled cassette of them at gigs. Straightforward acoustic-guitar renderings of material both ingratiatingly lovely (“Snow Day,” “Hurricane,” “Guessing Game,” “Do You Sleep”) and irritatingly precious (“This,” “Airplanes,” “Train Song”), the cassette — which does not include “Stay” in any form — suggests the sensitive seriousness of a young Paul Simon. But while the songs demonstrate Loeb’s impressive compositional imagination, they also reveal her blind spot to lyrical clumsiness. Several fine numbers (“It’s Over,” “Come Back Home”) stumble over language offenses: words like “stultify” and “muse,” and references to Hadrian’s Wall are not indicative of acute artistic judgment.
Produced slowly by Loeb and boyfriend Juan Patiño (who also recorded her debut) under the glowering cloud of commercial expectations, Tails is a painstaking translation of Loeb’s music into mainstream presentability. And, to a degree, it succeeds in moving her past The Big Hit, which is wisely saved for the album’s final slot. Conveniently, that also puts it as far as possible from “It’s Over,” a song which shares its melody.
Modulating the presentation to portray Loeb in three dimensions, Tails — which recycles four songs from the cassette — employs solo simplicity (“Sandalwood”), punchy rock (“Taffy,” “Garden of Delights,” “Alone”), surging power pop (the Bangles-like “Waiting for Wednesday”), baroque folk-pop with strings (“It’s Over,” “Hurricane”), even something like country (“Lisa Listen”). Intensely tuneful but too often prone to repetition of choruses whose content merits one pass through, Tails is a considered and respectable account by a gifted artist with plenty of room to grow. Still, at the first inkling of the guitar introduction to “Stay,” all of the effort and quality preceding it flies out the window. Tails meets the challenge of giving Loeb a clear shot at credibility, confirming that she’s capable of much more than a hit single, but the exquisite “Stay” remains the song on which her career hinges.