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Phair to Middlin'

 

Liz Phair: Liz Phair

Capitol, 2003

Rating: 3.1

 

 

Posted: June 23, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Pigeonholing is a real bitch. Just ask Liz Phair, whose naked bid for pop stardom has the indie cognoscenti sharpening their pitchforks for a full-on, mob-style riot. Ever since she emerged from nowhere with 1993's Exile in Guyville, Phair's been revered as an indie-rock goddess whose frank and gritty sexuality was hailed as a corrective to the overly earnest wave of female singer-songwriters of the day. Guyville's lo-fi aesthetic won the hearts of the music intelligentsia, but it didn't mask her grand pop ambitions. In fact, that record's unapologetic moments of power-pop set the stage for a large chunk of the material on her two follow-ups, 1994's Whip-Smart and 1998's indulgent, overlooked Whitechocolatespaceegg.

Still, some of Phair's most ardent fans have insisted on using her debut album as the yardstick against which all of her subsequent work should be measured, a situation almost any artist would decry as unfairly confining. Thus, even before the release of her new, self-titled album, Phair has endured a backlash that's arguably even bigger than the buzz she garnered ten years earlier. In effect, she's been pigeonholed as an artistic indie queen who's supposed to be above the kind of longing for acceptance that each of her albums has laid bare to the world.

Which is not to suggest that Phair's most rabid fans don't want her to grow, or that Liz Phair, the album, in any way represents an artistic step forward. It doesn't. In fact, the song's most attention-hungry moments, replete as they are with punchy singalong choruses, radio-friendly guitar crunch and a high-gloss studio sheen (courtesy, mostly, of of-the-moment songwriting/production team The Matrix), represent a rejection of artistic self-expression in favor of craft and polish, a by-the-numbers approach to hit-making that often proves embarrassing. "Extraordinary," the album's effusively ingratiating opener, is the album's unashamed manifesto, throwing down a gilded gauntlet of accessibility intended to introduce her to new listeners ("I am extraordinary/ if you'd ever get to know me", the chorus goes; "I'll make you love me," she vows later) and simultaneously defend her intentions to older listeners ("So I still take the trash out/ does that make me too normal for you?").

This naked need for widespread recognition is both expected (Phair is a rock and roll performer, after all) and perfectly forgivable. The problem with Liz Phair, then, isn't that it blatantly grabs for the brass ring -- Sheryl Crow, for one, churns out breezy, depth-challenged pop of a similar vein, and she's hailed as a capital-A "artist" for her efforts. No, the problem is Phair's failure to realize that she doesn't have to stoop to Crow's level -- or Avril Lavigne's, to mention a fellow Matrix beneficiary -- to get what she wants. Sadly, she often goes lower: Perhaps hoping to appease fans of her earlier sexual candor, she tries to approximate the physical urgency of Guyville with pabulum like "Rock Me" (a dead-on-arrival rocker about a May-December romance, if such a word can be used to describe the song's purely sexual relationship with a videogame-playing twentysomething) and "H.W.C.," an assembly line of cringeworthy banalities praising the beauty effects of "hot white come." "Favorite," meanwhile, runs aground on a creaky metaphor that equates a lover to a cherished pair of ratty underwear, a device even Sex And The City's Carrie Bradshaw wouldn't dare float past her editors. These songs are gross miscalculations of just what Phair's lyrical strengths are, and their obsequious catering to the Maxim/American Pie demographic is both transparent and willfully wrongheaded.

There's a good -- better than average, even -- Liz Phair album lurking in Liz Phair's midlife-crisis grooves. Michael Penn's production on the non-Matrix numbers accentuates Phair's often under-utilized melodicism. And for all their insulin-shock sugar rush, the disc's poppier moments -- "Why Can't I?," "Firewalker," "It's Sweet" and "Red Light Fever," to name a few -- convincingly build on the hummable template first evinced on Whip-Smart and Whitechocolatespaceegg. But Phair sandbags that would-be album by narrowing her flight plan to fit a lowest-common-denominator lyrical approach that cheapens the latent poignancy of songs like the wistful "Friend of Mine" as well as the throat-grabbing rock-out of "Extraordinary" or the refined catchiness of "Red Light Fever." In the process, she doesn't sell out so much as she sells herself short. No doubt that's why many critics and fans are so disappointed: They know she's capable of both radio-conquering hooks and lyrics with actual heart.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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