Liz Phair

Liz Phair

Capitol Records, 2003

REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy


I looked cautiously at my Liz Phair CDs, even the bootlegged Fuck and Run live CD as I unwrapped the cellophane of her latest album. I know that by the end of this album, I would not be able to listen to these CDs in the same way again. "God, let's get this over with," I thought to myself as I put Liz Phair in the CD player. Add one more statement I never would have imagined myself uttering: "get this over with" before listening to a Liz Phair CD.

Once a prolific indie stateswoman, Liz Phair has spent the last year or two stuck in the Matrix - limited, trapped and surrounded by machines. Liz Phair is not an abomination, it's more of a sad fact of life facing female musicians. It seems that in the mid-30s/40 being the cutoff, a popular female artist has two avenues to face: keep doing what you're doing and risk losing record sales, or go pure pop and try to compete with artists 20 years their junior (meaning spend more time worrying about image and let the 'in' producers worry about making the album sound right). Last year Sheryl Crow made this decision with C'Mon, C'Mon. Now, Phair seems to have chosen a similar path with her self-titled album.

It shouldn't have come as a shock: on the last track of whitechocolatespaceegg, her last album, she wished upon herself and her friends "shitloads of money." In hope of living up to that statement, Phair hired The Matrix recording team (the same team that made Avril Lavigne the pop sensation that she is). To save some indie-cred, she hired Michael Penn to produce a few tracks. But it's too late, since almost every aspect of Liz Phair seems soulless and artificially crafted.

Almost every annoying cliché in today's popular music can be heard in Liz Phair; right down to the annoying robot echo effect of "Why Can't I?" Not only did the producers take control of the music, Phair had songwriting contributors for about half of her album. For five years worth of life experience (including divorce and raising a child), it seems that the most quoted lyric of Liz Phair will sadly be, "I want to play X-Box on your floor" in the cloying "Rock Me." Even a more desperate attempt, most of the songs Phair shares songwriting credits with come at the first half of the album, opting to keep her solo songwriting songs near the back of the album.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The myth is that her fans were expecting Exile in Guyville II. That cannot be further from the truth. Most fans who grew into adulthood with Exile know that artists cannot recreate albums of that magnitude. In truth, her other albums, Whip-Smart and whitechocolatespaceegg were great extensions of her abilities. The only thing that was lacking was the media coverage of those albums.

Most fans are willing to give their favorite artists slack for taking artistic detours. Tori Amos, PJ Harvey, Lucinda Williams and Bjork have each released an album or two that have thrown off their loyalists, but most are willing to go along for the ride because most of their fans know that what's coming from the artist is a sincere statement of truth: They know that what they're hearing is coming from the artist's heart (as hopelessly romantic as that statement is). It's no surprise that "Little Digger," one of the songs that Liz Phair exclusively penned, is also the most effective song on the album. The lyrics are reminiscent of her earlier, far more devastating, autobiographical statements. Liz does a great job of painting the scene: her young son meets her boyfriend who is not his father. As her son meticulously puts his toy trucks on the bed next to her boyfriend, Phair thinks: "I've done the damage, the damage is done/I pray to god that I'm the damaged one." It's those honest statements that are lacking in Liz Phair.

Which brings us to another myth: fans expect Liz Phair to shock them with dirty lyrics. On the surface, it would stand to reason, since "Flower" and "Fuck and Run" are two of her most-quoted songs. But it was the emotional honesty, not the vulgarity that leaves an impact with the listener. Her latest song to try to shock an ever-increasing hard to shock audience is "H.W.C." The song is a poppy ode to "Hot White Come." It's not shocking that she's asking for "H.W.C" at the age of 36. Hell, Lucinda Williams and Patti Smith are still sexy way into their 50s. It's the sense of desperation that bogs down the entire album.

Liz Phair knew she would alienate her fan base by trying to make a "summer album." But the sad thing is that none of the songs are even that memorable or catchy. She has stated that she had no qualms about making an album to pay the bills (in interviews, she alluded that Liz Phair will have to go platinum to at least break even). However, she has the odds stacked against her: most of the general radio audience that she is aiming for has never heard of her. In most cases, that would cause me to root for her, but with the exception of "Little Digger" and "Friend of Mine," there's not much to root for.

Ironically, Exile in Guyville, the album that she has tried to lock away in this album, will likely continue to bring in money for Liz Phair. After this album makes a brief splash in the adult-contemporary market, it will glide off the charts. However, like Jeff Buckley's Grace and PJ Harvey's To Bring You My Love, there will always be about 30,000 college students (sullen art majors, confused gay boys and indie rock DJs) a year that will add these staples to their music collection. It can be a safe assessment that Liz Phair will be able to feed her son and keep a roof over her head. You don't need to guilt yourself into buying her latest album. However, most die-hard Liz Phair fans will eventually pick this album up out of curiosity. The question now is: How many fans will welcome her back after this failed flirtation at superstardom?

Rating: D+

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© 2003 Sean McCarthy and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Capitol Records, and is used for informational purposes only.