Smartt Bell’s Smart Album; Lee’s Cool; Phair Is Middling

The world is not exactly rife with rock musicians who’ve made successful forays into writing. But at least a few rockers-Pete Townshend, Nick Cave and Julian Cope among them-have shown they can manage a pen as well as a plectrum. On the other hand, I can think of only one proven writer who’s gone on to create decent rock music: Leonard Cohen. Most novelists or poets or critics who attempt to rock usually wind up sounding like Stephen King’s infamous Rock Bottom Remainders: The so-called band members may be overjoyed by the amateurish racket they’re making, but everyone else could use a couple of Advils.

For this reason, I wasn’t expecting much from Forty Words for Fear (Gaff Music), the new CD by novelist Madison Smartt Bell and poet Wyn Cooper. Even so, the album’s back story was tough to resist. Mr. Bell’s novel Anything Goes , published last year, concerned the to-ings and fro-ings of a fifth-tier bar band. While writing the book, Mr. Bell asked his friend of two decades, Mr. Cooper, to help him come up with song lyrics for his fictitious group. (In rock circles, Mr. Cooper is best known for writing a poem, “Fun,” that, with some modifications, became Sheryl Crow’s 1994 megahit “All I Wanna Do.”) Not only were the lyrics included in the book but, as a lark, Mr. Bell, who plays guitar, also set them to music and recorded a demo tape of the songs.

Thanks to the intercession of Gaff Music label head Scott Beal, that tape made it into the hands of producer Don Dixon, famous for his work with the Smithereens, Let’s Active and R.E.M. Mr. Dixon liked what he heard, set up some studio time with long-time collaborator Mitch Easter (who engineered the record), recruited co-producer Jim Brock and hired some crack musicians-and before long, Mr. Bell’s lark had become an honest-to-goodness record. This is what we in the journalism trade call a nice hook. But again, it’s a novelist and a poet making a rock album; the precedents aren’t tremendous.

Which makes Forty Words for Fear all the more surprising. Though no masterpiece, it’s a thoroughly absorbing piece of work. Songs with titles like “The Here Below” and “What God Had Up His Sleeve” lay mordantly humorous lyrics and a general air of foreboding over rustic blues backdrops. Call it woodshed noir.

Mr. Bell won’t win any singing competitions, but his gruff, quaky voice-reminiscent of the aforementioned Mr. Cohen, as well as folkmeister Greg Brown and the late Boston hipster Mark Sandman of Morphine-is just right for the music’s thoughtfully ragged tone. (Mr. Cooper, on the other hand, limits his vocalizing to the recitation of a few stray lines.)

Better still are the arresting sonic touches sprinkled throughout, courtesy, I assume, of Messrs. Dixon and Brock. The percussion underlying the album’s opening track, “On 8 Mile,” sounds like somebody banging metal garbage cans together, and probably is. The heaviest rock number, “Anything Goes,” could almost pass for ZZ Top-except that the lead instrument is a banjo. Elsewhere, accordion, trombone and short-wave radio make memorable appearances. The creativity on display here is such that one can’t help concluding a second career is within Mr. Bell’s grasp, if the novel-writing thing doesn’t pan out.

That’s Not Phair!

If you’re still somehow wondering whether Liz Phair has really sold out, I can tell you unequivocally that she has. Her new album, titled simply Liz Phair (Capitol), is about as transparent a bid for Top 40 radio play as you can get.

But what’s wrong with that?

With her classic first album, Exile in Guyville , released in 1993, Ms. Phair gained the kind of street credibility that today’s bespectacled Williamsburg nerds would kill for. Any further adulation from the fringes of society would be redundant. More to the point, she’s a 36-year-old single mom, and all the rave reviews in the world won’t buy baby a new pair of shoes.

The problem is that Ms. Phair’s pursuit of commercial acceptance has diluted her personality, which is the reason we still care about her 10 years after her debut. Among the many people she hired to compile this album were the Matrix, the production team that gave the world Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated,” and, sadly, Liz Phair is much like that horrid teenager’s simulated rock: pure pabulum coated with a thin layer of processed toughness that’s as catchy as it is empty.

Ms. Phair, of course, trumps Ms. Lavigne when it comes to sexual forthrightness; her frequent use of dirty words heated up many a reviewer when she first arrived on the scene. On the new disc, she’s still up to her old tricks, but the results are more stupid than sexy. The principal offender, “H.W.C.,” features a refrain that some might view as risqué: “Gimme your hot white come.” Yet the way Ms. Phair sings these words, in the la-di-da voice of a high-school talent-show folkie, removes any potential thrill. It’s further proof that spaying and neutering, though helpful for pets, doesn’t make for great rock ‘n’ roll.

Dull Dan

Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the prime movers of Steely Dan, have been around long enough now that they seem like family-the two weird uncles you never had. Hyper-educated masters of insular jive talk, they seem to be enduring an endless midlife crisis. They’re hopelessly cynical, yet occasionally blindsided by bouts of twisted romanticism, usually brought on by the temptations of much, much younger women. Or at least the characters they write about are, and have been since Mr. Fagen and Mr. Becker started the band in the early 70’s.

In this respect, they’ve stayed consistent; their latest release, Everything Must Go (Reprise), is full of guys like the sad sack in “Things I Miss the Most,” who takes his mind off his lady love’s departure by “building the Andrea Doria out of balsa wood.”

As always, the Dan’s barbed lyrics are nothing short of brilliant, and Mr. Fagen’s acerbic New York whine remains the consummate vehicle for them. But the rest of the package is troubling. Over time, Messrs. Becker and Fagen have settled into a way too comfortable mid-tempo pseudo-jazz-funk groove. Everything Must Go ‘s rhythm tracks have a generic quality that renders them almost interchangeable with one another. At least two-thirds of Mr. Becker’s noodly guitar fills could have been excised without harm. Worst of all, the tunes are downright predictable.

Most critics and fans view the antiseptic fern-bar soundtracks of 1980’s Gaucho as Steely Dan’s nadir, but in melodic and harmonic terms, that album’s songs offer far more surprises than anything here. What happened to the dazzling twists and turns of “Glamour Profession” or “Aja” or-one of the most perfect pop songs recorded in the 1970’s-“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”? Maybe that’s as pointless a question as asking why Steely Dan don’t rock anymore. But dammit, why don’t they?

Get Thee Lee!

Finally, a brief word about New York singer/songwriter Chris Lee’s new CD, Cool Rock (Misra). The critical boilerplate on Mr. Lee is that he’s the inheritor of the late Jeff Buckley’s mantle, and true enough, the two do share some vocal similarities, particularly a smooth, swooping falsetto. But the songs Mr. Lee writes don’t have Mr. Buckley’s rock edge. Instead, they’re airy, urbane mélanges of jazz, soul and old-school pop, sharing deep roots with the 80’s work of Everything But the Girl and Paul Weller’s Style Council. It’s a kind of music I didn’t realize I missed until I heard Mr. Lee. That he plays superbly is welcome enough; that he ends the album with a heart-tugging rendition of Mississippi John Hurt’s “Nobody Cares for Me” is fresh whipped cream and strawberries on the cake. Get Cool Rock . Smartt Bell’s Smart Album; Lee’s Cool; Phair Is Middling