- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 7, 2005

Liz Phair was struggling with a wayward spaghetti strap early in her set Friday night. “It’s so hard to rock and be fashionable,” she told her audience as her boyfriend and guitar mate, Dino Meneghin, mended the wardrobe malfunction with a roll of black tape.

Lately, Miss Phair’s critics — especially the ones who have followed her since the days of “Exile in Guyville,” the marvelously idiosyncratic 1993 indie album that raised the bar for post-grunge female singer-songwriters — have seen too much fashion and not enough rock. They held their noses at Miss Phair’s pop-heavy self-titled LP of two years ago, which was partially produced by a team of confectioners who’d been associated with punk diva Avril Lavigne’s hit singles.

Perhaps as an act of penance, the 38-year-old Miss Phair left the sonic makeup kit at home for her current tour, which stopped at the Birchmere Friday for the second of two sold-out acoustic shows. In such a stripped-and-clipped setting, the singer’s decade-strong catalog came across tough and tender, kind of like Miss Phair herself — a pint-sized charmer with a hazardously sexy persona and a potty mouth.

Nothing beats a pair of acoustic guitars if you’re looking for the lowest common denominator of a songbook. For Miss Phair, it’s the oddly inspired melodies and puckish invention that come from having a just-good-enough voice and an amateur’s grip on guitar.

During a set that lasted just an hour, with fans barking requests at every turn, she reached back for her demo-era twist on the classic “Wild Thing” and served up a healthy portion of “Exile” cuts including the sneering “6‘1,” the infectious “Never Said” and the sad-but-funny post-relationship inventory “The Divorce Song.”

The unobtrusively musical Mr. Meneghin snapped on a bottleneck for the bluesy “Baby Got Going” and played some lovely Spanish figures on an “El Paso”-like rendition of “Uncle Alvarez.” Even recent radio bait such as “Why Can’t I?” and “Extraordinary” sounded like plaintive little miracles in their birthday suits.

Miss Phair previewed several cuts from her forthcoming album “Somebody’s Miracle,” a John Alagia-produced set that’s due in October. It’s reportedly a song-for-song response to Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life” in the same way that “Exile in Guyville” supposedly mirrored the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street.” (It didn’t in any sense that I could tell, save for literal track length.)

Whatever the case, “Miracle” sounds like it was written in the key of heartbreak. The title track’s narrator watches a passerby and pines, “There goes somebody’s miracle.” The ballad “Everything to Me” asked, “Do you really know me at all?” And “Table for One” was a dark, troubling rumination on a friend’s alcoholism. She said the comparatively happy contender “A Little Closer to You” may not make the final cut.

After the show, Miss Phair mentioned that she sought out Mr. Alagia because of his work with singer-songwriter softies John Mayer and Jason Mraz. This no doubt will raise suspicious eyebrows from “Exile”-era fans, but from where I sat, at least, Miss Phair was raising goose bumps.

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