Review: Lisa Loeb’s “The Purple Tape”

Jan 25, 2008 3:00pm

In 1994, Lisa Loeb achieved the impossible feat of having a No. 1 single without a record contract.  Her song “Stay” had been featured in the iconic movie “Reality Bites,” and its popularity led to a bidding war that resulted in her eventual signing to Geffen Records.  In 1995, she released “Tails,” her first full-length album.  To date, she hasn’t repeated the success of “Stay,” but she has released a consistently good string of singles and albums.

“The Purple Tape” is a long-treasured nugget in the eyes of die-hard Loeb fans.  It’s essentially her 1992 demo consisting of 10, stripped down, acoustic renditions of early songs.  Most of these songs eventually wound up on “Tails,” but some were new solo versions of songs that she’d performed as part of Liz & Lisa, the duo she had formed while attending Brown University with future Ida front-woman Elizabeth Mitchell.   

Originally on cassette, as was the standard back then, “The Purple Tape” has now been remastered and released on CD for the very first time. To make the package even sweeter, it has also been packaged with an hour-long interview disc on which Loeb discusses the genesis of the project in depth.  Her analysis of her own song structures is priceless.  No doubt, this section may be useful to college music professors and those who simply like to know about the mechanics of music.  She dissects every track, discusses her favorite lyrics and gives a very rare insight into her songwriting process.  To any musician, hearing this can be instantly inspirational.  She explains that her early work was an exceptionally complicated chord, progression wise, because in her performing circle, complex arrangements brought a great deal of respect.  Over time, her songs have gotten a little simpler, so it is indeed a treat to hear her explain her most complicated works. 

The most notable observation one can make about the early recordings on “The Purple Tape” is how almost shout-y some of her vocal performances are. They aren’t radically different from the studio takes, but they aren’t quite as soft and sweet either.   On the interview disc, she explains that she was not yet at ease with being a front-woman, considering she had been more of a background singer and guitar-player in her Liz and Lisa days. 

She also explains that it was difficult to tell people she was a singer-songwriter and not a folk singer despite her acoustic guitar.  Sure, she has never been as angst-driven as Liz Phair or Alanis Morisette, but underneath the sugary, friendly vocal style, lie lyrics about sadness, depression and isolation.  She may have thought that she didn’t quite fit in with what was in at the time, but if you listen carefully, she really did.  She’s like a softer, gentler Juliana Hatfield with more memorable lyrics. 

The version of “Do You Sleep?” holds up well next to the more famous single version.  The bare-bones version of “Snow Day” sounds much more depressive and blustery.  One can bet that “Hurricane” truly moved audiences when it was performed in the live, acoustic setting.  “Train Songs” is pleasantly driving progression with its clever use of “jazz-chords” and its chorus of “You gave wonderful hugs when I was with you.”  As Loeb observes on the interview disc, the “Wizard of Oz”- themed  “Come Back Home” owes a massive debt to the Jackson 5, sounding a little like “I Want You Back.”  The  ba-da-da  chorus of “This” effectively distills Loeb’s amiable appeal into a three-syllable refrain. “Guessing Game” is typical Loeb-spun pop gold. 

“Stay” was not one of the demos on “The Purple Tape,” however Loeb closes the interview disc with a live, acoustic version.  Give her credit for knowing what her audience wants. 

This reissue could probably not have come at a better time.  With the popularity of Myspace for budding musicians, not to mention the rise of other DIY singer-songwriters like Ingrid Michaelson, thanks to ad and television placement, no doubt Loeb’s amazing achievement with “Stay” will be repeated by someone else eventually.   It’s good to know that in a simpler, less-connected time, someone was able to break through the corporate clutter.  Loeb was a trailblazer.  She continues to make excellent records 16 years later, making these early recordings even more compelling. 

 

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