- The Washington Times - Friday, June 27, 2003

“Liz Phair” (Capitol Records) Liz Phair has been shamelessly outspoken in recent interviews about her commercial ambitions for “Liz Phair,” her new self-titled CD released today. She has talked openly about recruiting red-hot production team The Matrix (who were behind the breakout debut of “edgy” teen-pop sensation Avril Lavigne) in order to get a hit single, her lack of concern over alienating her original fan base, and even the way she and her record label’s stylists chose her new false-but-marketable image from European fashion magazines. Longtime Phair loyalists will search in vain for any hint of humor, or even irony, in such nonchalant superficiality. It’s not that the prospect of Liz Phair having a smash hit record isn’t a pretty notion. But her apparent belief that she can fulfill this dream by shoe-horning her deep but not particularly broad talents into the garishly overblown sound-scapes favored by contemporary teen-pop practitioners is woefully misguided. When the dust settles, no one is going to be entirely happy with “Liz Phair” or Liz Phair—not her record label, not her longtime fans, and certainly not the targeted teen-pop audience, who will have no clue what this oddball, potty-mouthed, thirtysomething single mom in fishnets is doing on their TRL. How sad. Liz Phair’s first CD, 1993’s “Exile In Guyville,” made the foundations of the rock world tremble. Her musical technique may have been limited, but it was all her own, and a more than adequate vehicle for her unique worldview and her astonishing gift for self-expression. Her songs sounded as if they had sprung fully formed from deep inside her cranium, and the sympathetic arrangements and “Lo-Fi” production values that collaborators Brad Wood and Casey Rice so lovingly tailored around them created a compellingly seamless musical world. It was a world that had never quite been captured on CD before, and thousands of hyper-intelligent, hypersensitive, misfit, bohemian college girls found it instantly recognizable. Rock critics piled on to write about this woman who sang so explicitly (and “empoweringly”) about sex, but Miss Phair’s frank descriptions of sexual activity were only a small, albeit important, part of her singular accomplishment. Her second release, 1994’s “Whip Smart,” was mostly successful in re-creating the original atmosphere of “Exile,” but somehow the sophomore effort lacked the uncorkable gush of a lifetime’s worth of pent-up songs. Still, it had its revelatory moments. On “May Queen,” which closed the album, Miss Phair defended her little square of musical sod with blood-thirsty gusto, while her joyous evocation of early morning sex on “Nashville” was more genuinely erotic (and romantic) than anything on “Exile.” Miss Phair expanded her palette on 1998’s underrated “whitechocolatespaceegg,” her first major label album, using big-time studios and producers for the first time. The album was more conventional in its sonic sheen and full-band arrangements, but Miss Phair succeeded in preserving the delicate balance between her rapidly improving musical craftsmanship and the demands of her idiosyncratic muse. Five years have passed since then, years which included marriage, motherhood and subsequent divorce, but no new releases. It would be nice to report that her sense of balance has survived intact, but the truth is her new CD sounds positively schizophrenic. “Extraordinary,” the first of the four tracks produced and co-written by The Matrix team, opens “Liz Phair” with disconcertingly Spinal Tap-ish power chords, before the onetime antiheroine lunges in with an affirmation anthem so insipid it would make Stuart Smalley cringe. The other Matrix tracks, “Why Can’t I,” “Rock Me” and “Favorite” (“You’re like my favorite underwear”) are progressively brutal assaults of faceless instrumentation and drippy, cliche-ridden lyrics. These musical settings, besides sounding jarringly ugly and factory-made, are not particularly flattering to Miss Phair’s voice. She sounds overmatched and out of place as she obligingly mimics the multi-tracked chipmunk chirping of artists so obviously beneath her on the evolutionary scale. Sure, these songs are catchy in their way, especially in their revved-up choruses, and if you play them enough times you will find yourself singing along. But they have a very short half-life and evaporate from your brain almost as quickly as they arrived. The other tracks (variously produced by Michael Penn, R. Walt Vincent and Miss Phair herself) range from very good, to halfway decent, to embarrassingly awful. “Red Light Fever,” the best of the radio-ready anthems, finds Miss Phair singing with so much warmth and resonance on the verses that you will be tempted to forgive the obligatory chipmunk choir on the choruses and the pointless power-ballad guitar solo. By contrast, “H.W.C.” and “My Bionic Eyes” are ridiculous throwaways that cross over into self-parody. Still, forensic musicologists will be able to detect Miss Phair’s latent musical fingerprints if they listen hard enough. “It’s Sweet” bears her distinct melodic touch, but unfortunately dwindles away in less than three minutes, more of a sketch than a finished song. “Little Digger,” in which Miss Phair’s young son deals bravely with his mom dating men who are not his dad, is undoubtedly heartfelt and pretty, but unfortunately it never completely transcends the inherent sentimentality of its subject matter. The album’s best songs, the exuberant, Who-ish rocker “Love/Hate Transmission,” the stately “Firewalker” and the wistful breakup song “Friend of Mine,” would not have been out of place on “whitechocolatespaceegg.” But here they tantalize listeners by suggesting the deeper, truer album “Liz Phair” could easily have been. No other person in the world could have written or recorded any track on any of Miss Phair’s first three albums. The same cannot be said of “Liz Phair.” That she has abandoned the personalized idioms that seemed to flow so inevitably from her unique sensibility to work in the lingua franca of generic teen-pop seems like some kind of perverse, postmodern performance-art stunt. It’s painful to think that someone so gifted could misjudge her own talents so badly. • Philip Shelley is a musician and free-lance writer living in Manhattan.

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