Phair Game

Washington City Paper | January 13, 2006
Edith Frost has had her share of help in the studio. Former Pinetop Seven bassist Ryan Hembrey even lent a hand on 2001’s Wonder Wonder and the new It’s a Game. But Frost prefers to be known non-numerically: as...Edith Frost.

For her, that’s better than being known as Liz Phair. Frost’s sophomore LP, 1998’s Telescopic, made her a dead ringer for that particular shoulda-stayed-indie diva, not only because of the women’s eerily similar voices, but also because of the album’s lo-fi sound. With the guitar fuzz and drum flourishes now burned off of her songs, the style Frost has arrived at two albums later is both more conventional and more her own—not quite broken-hearted country, not quite smoky-lounge jazz.

Just as It’s a Game’s liner notes reveal the disc’s song titles simply by knocking them up a few point sizes within the lyrics, the best tracks on It’s a Game stamp their themes into your brain by attaching them to big ol’ hooks. We get ’em on the futility of romance (“A Mirage,” “Lucky Charm”), the futility of communication (“If It Weren’t for the Words”), or the futility of expecting a boyfriend to do the right thing (“My Lover Won’t Call”).

Not that the lyrics are devoid of subtlety: “Playmate” starts off with a lengthy “Iiiii” on each of the first three lines and ends with a triple imperative: “Come shine over me light/Come slide into the night/Come slowly into my room.” And “What’s the Use” goes, on subsequent choruses, almost imperceptibly from “What’s the use of trying?” to “What’s the use of trying again?”

The music is similarly simple ’n’ sturdy, with most of the instrumental adventuring confined to the breaks. “A Mirage” bolsters gently plucked guitar with gentle strings. “If It Weren’t for the Words” offers a harpsichordy something that gives way to a chiming organ. The title track features a soft opening with brushed drum and descending piano notes. During the instrumental part, in comes what sounds like a Mellotron, which is about as out-there as It’s a Game gets. (The album’s credits list nearly a dozen players without specifying any instruments.)

That leaves a lot of work for Frost’s voice, so it’s good to hear that when she laments, on “Playmate,” “I wanna find somebody to press against in the night,” she comes across as both lonely and lustful. She sounds appropriately resolved on “What’s the Use” and on the sign-off, “Lovin’ You Goodbye.” The latter is a relatively up-tempo number about acceptance in which she makes the line “I’m glad I had you/For what little time you could give” seem something other than pathetic—probably because, as the “I couldn’t leave without lovin’ you goodbye” chorus suggests, her acceptance was aided by an empowering pre-break-up scrump.

That Frost has now fully transformed her music from experimentation to traditionalism might not seem like something to be proud of. But that she’s done so without becoming any less engaging—well, even Liz Phair couldn’t pull that off.

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