Liz Phair

TrackAlbum
Fuck And RunExile In Guyville
Help Me MaryExile In Guyville
Divorce SongExile In Guyville
Go WestWhip-Smart
Whip-SmartWhip-Smart
May QueenWhip-Smart
Polyester BrideWhitechocolatespaceegg
What Makes You HappyWhitechocolatespaceegg
Love/HateLiz Phair
Stars And PlanetsSomeone's Miracle

Liz Phair photo 1

 

 

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Liz Phair playlist

 

 

Contributor: Marc Fagel

Singer-songwriter Liz Phair made the tragic mistake of beginning her recording career with Exile In Guyville, one of the most revolutionary, critically-revered debut albums of its era. (Indeed, in the indie rock 90s, perhaps only Pavement made the same impact with their debut.) As a result, she has spent the past quarter-century trying to escape that album’s long shadow, at times defiantly upsetting fans’ and critics’ expectations with music far afield from what had originally brought her attention. But to focus exclusively on her stunning early work is a mistake, overlooking some songs that were at the very least entertaining, and at times even great, albeit on albums which didn’t always fulfill her early promise.

Before Exile launched her into the public eye, Phair, a recent college grad back home in Chicago, recorded a series of rough bedroom cassettes full of raw, deeply personal songs. Issued as the Girly-Sound tapes and passed around the Chicago music scene, the music featured Phair’s unvarnished vocals accompanied by a lone guitar, her lyrics conveying outspoken sexual frankness and detailed character studies. Many of the songs were later re-recorded for her early albums, while the original home recordings, aside from a few appearing on an EP, were relegated to bootlegs before finally seeing official release some 25 years later.

The early recordings won Phair a contract with Matador Records, where she recorded her 1993 debut Exile In Guyville. So much has been said about Exile over the years that it makes little sense to rehash it here, but suffice it to say that the album lives up to the hype it received at the time; an empowering manifesto of sorts that stakes its claim for greatness on clever, incisive lyrics built around the personal rather than the polemical. Hearing some of the current crop of edgy women singer-songwriters like Soccer Mommy, Phoebe Bridgers, Anna Burch, Snail Mail, and the like, it’s easy to forget that when Exile debuted, Phair was truly breaking new ground, opening the door for so many women who followed.

As with the Girly-Sound material, which forms the basis for a large chunk of the album, the songs touch on everything from sexual politics to youthful angst to tales of survival in the male-dominated music scene, profane and funny and occasionally simply devastating, delivered with Phair’s distinctively deadpan vocal earnestness.

And while Exile is rightfully acknowledged largely for its lyrical gifts, the music often doesn’t get the same due, which is a shame. The sparse, understated production and instrumentation, which retains the home-brewed feel of the Girly-Sound tapes but with enough polish (and occasional rocking out) to merit some volume-knob twiddling, initially comes across as rudimentary, plentiful hooks notwithstanding. Yet Phair’s guitar-playing, unique chord structures and riffs that force any guitarist playing along to struggle to recreate the licks, conveys the sense of a teenage girl listening to Keith Richards in her bedroom and trying to replicate the sound in her own way, ending up with an entirely parallel set of musical rules. (And even there, one can hear Phair’s eschewal of macho power chords as its own proclamation of sorts.)

Exile alone would supply more than enough tracks to fill up a Toppermost, but a few personal favorites include Fuck And Run, the brutally frank assessment of a life of one night stands that hooks you from the opening seconds (“I woke up alarmed, I didn’t know where I was at first, just that I woke up in your arms, and almost immediately I felt sorry”); Help Me Mary, a wickedly clever tune that can be heard as both a dig at the roommates from hell and the dude-centric indie music scene writ large (“I lock my door at night, I keep my mouth shut tight, I practice all my moves, I memorize their stupid rules”); and Divorce Song, a painfully direct post-break-up road-trip travelogue (“the license said you had to stick around until I was dead/ but if you’re tired of looking at my face, I guess I already am”).

As a side note: Phair has explained that her Exile was sequenced as a sort of response to the Stones’ uber-macho Exile On Main Street, and while this bit of background isn’t integral to one’s enjoyment of the album, I finally got around to putting it to the test, creating a mix from the two sets (with a few minor tweaks), and it actually works, a fascinating musical and lyrical back-and-forth between two epic statements. (Guyville received a 25th anniversary deluxe edition treatment in 2018, coupling the remastered album with, at long last, a nearly complete set of the Girly-Sound recordings.)

 

The follow-up couldn’t help but suffer in comparison, but despite lacking the same legendary status, 1994’s Whip-Smart is a worthy successor, picking up where Exile left off, with a number of equally great songs. The consistency is not all that surprising, given that several of the tracks are similarly drawn from the Girly-Sound tapes, and both records were co-produced and performed primarily by Phair and producer/musician Brad Wood. The album even sported something of an alt.rock hit, the hard-rocking, sexually overcharged Supernova clocking some play on MTV’s 120 Minutes. Personally, though, I prefer the more restrained yet no less catchy tunes, like the perky up-tempo Cinco De Mayo and Whip-Smart, as well as the gently pretty May Queen and loping road song Go West.

Phair took some family time after Whip-Smart (got married, had a kid), her output limited to 1995’s Juvenilia EP, a somewhat haphazard collection that included a rousing cover of new wave novelty hit Turning Japanese (with Phair backed by Chicago power pop band Material Issue) as well as a few Girly-Sound recordings in their original lo-fi glory.

When Phair returned with 1998’s Whitechocolatespaceegg, she brought some slicker production values and more practiced vocals (though it was still a far cry from what was yet to come). Yet despite lacking the stripped-down intimacy of its predecessors, Whitechocolate is still an engaging and gratifying record. Indeed, for all its pop flourishes, the album’s mixed-bag rap is hard to understand. Musically and lyrically, it’s not a radical departure from the first two records, and it’s hardly revolutionary for a critically-revered indie artist to make some commercial concessions in the hopes of finding a wider audience. (Alas, in Phair’s case, the added polish didn’t help her find greater commercial success). The single Polyester Bride, a last-minute addition in response to Matador’s demand for a more radio-friendly tune, was a ringer from the Girly-Sound tapes given a shiny veneer, and it’s a lot of fun, as is the rollicking Big Tall Man. Uncle Alvarez is a quieter, poignant character study, Phair sidling up to Ray Davies territory with her lyrical observations, though I’m particularly partial to What Makes You Happy, a thoughtful back-and-forth between a mother and daughter (albeit one that could’ve used another verse). Johnny Feelgood and Ride offer fun upbeat pop songcraft without sacrificing her distinctive sound.

But the most prescient statement on Whitechocolate came in the song Shitloads Of Money where Phair sings, “It’s nice to be liked. But it’s better by far to get paid.” And if that song’s cynical paean to financial success was just a pose, her 2003 self-titled album seemed to boldly embrace it, exchanging her indie cred for radio-ready youth-market mainstream pop. Any artist releasing a mid-career eponymous LP is making a statement, but Liz Phair is a particularly brazen rebirth, from the slick production to the bombastic hooks, even bringing in the Matrix (the songwriting/production team best known at the time for their work with teen star Avril Lavigne) for a few tracks. Not unexpectedly, but to a troubling (and arguably misogynist) degree, the critics went berserk, most notably in a rare zero-star Pitchfork review, howling as if Phair’s abandonment of her earlier edge was a personal betrayal.

Obviously, Liz Phair is a dramatically different record than Exile; but with the passage of time, can it be assessed more objectively? In some ways, Phair was a victim of timing. The album came out just before the mid-2000s rise of “poptimism,” when rock critics (historically largely white and male) recognized that the snobbish knee-jerk rejection of popular music was arguably tied up in racism and sexism, a dawning realization that the pop/R&B-oriented (and often Black and/or women) artists who reached a large audience couldn’t be simply dismissed out-of-hand for failing to be as sonically adventurous as, say, Sonic Youth. These days, critics who once extolled the virtues of Pere Ubu and Gang of Four seem to trip over each other to be most complimentary of the latest Taylor Swift or Beyoncé or Lana Del Rey album, and one has to wonder if Liz Phair might have been greeted differently were it released today.

Personally, I don’t find it to be a bad album once you set aside comparisons to the first three records. If you appreciate the charms of a well-crafted Kelly Clarkson or Miley Cyrus or Katy Perry single (and I’ll admit that I do), Liz Phair can be enjoyed on its own merits, with the added bonus that, for all the commercial airbrushing, Liz Phair still sounds like Liz Phair, with her colorful lyrics and idiosyncratic vocals relatively intact. Hell, Extraordinary and Why Can’t I, two of the Matrix-helmed singles, would sound great blasting out of the car radio on the way to a party if you weren’t expecting another Fuck And Run. I personally like Love/Hate, a lightweight pop song with a cheesy synth line that somehow wins me over; and a few tunes, like the slower-paced Firewalker, do hail back to early Liz. (Sadly, some of the songs recorded at this time were relegated to a digital-only release, all but impossible to find these days, and they were at least as good as what made the cut, particular the stellar rarity Jeremy Engle.)

For the follow-up, Phair split the difference between the two preceding albums, retaining the professional polish introduced on Whitechocolate but cutting back on the slick, overtly mainstream-courting aspects of Liz Phair. The result, 2005’s Somebody’s Miracle, fits a little more comfortably alongside other women singer-songwriters of the day, from Sheryl Crow to Shawn Colvin, a blend of pop, folk, and soft rock. While the retreat from its predecessor should’ve been welcome, the album got another critical shellacking … and, again, it seems unfair. Miracle is an underrated album, with some earworm hooks, and nothing as polarizing as her Matrix singles. Miracle’s biggest flaw is, for all its booming hum-along choruses – and there are a lot of those – a certain blandness; it sounds great while it spins, but when the record ends I’m hard-pressed to remember many of the tunes. Still, there’s a lot here to enjoy. Take Stars And Planets, a bouncy pop track that reprises the radio-friendly aesthetic of the preceding record without the overkill; or Leap Of Innocence and Got My Own Thing, both chock full of catchy, jangly pop hooks. The songs may commit the sin of being more what Liz wants to sing than what her older fans want to hear, but screw ‘em, these are solid songs.

But if Liz Phair and Somebody’s Miracle showed a willingness to follow her own muse, sentiments of early fans be damned, then 2010’s Funstyle was a flip-off of Lou Reed proportions (and more on Lou in a moment). Phair was apparently in the mood for a private party full of Bollywood musical numbers and in-joke dialogue and P!nk-styled R&B pop, so that’s what we got. And while it may be tough to listen to the entire record for more than curiosity value, a few decent songs emerge. Satisfied is a return to the radio-ready pop of Liz Phair, Phair’s telltale confessional lyrics tethered to killer hooks; Miss September is an insinuating ballad, sweetly winning; and the slithery And He Slayed Her is oddly compelling. Carve out the self-indulgent experiments, and you’re left with a worthwhile EP that should satisfy fans who stuck around beyond Whitechocolate.

Alas, Phair disappeared from the studio for the next decade (the Exile reissue aside). She finally surfaced in 2019 with a single, Good Side. The song finds Liz unabashedly in her 2000s-era pop territory, a mid-tempo shuffle that sounds like the work of a mature Taylor Swift fan, though it benefits from being far less out-of-place in the current musical landscape. Phair didn’t follow it up with a long-player; instead, she released the 2019 memoir “Horror Stories”. Unlike the typical rock star memoir, it’s a highly literate string of short essays, only tangentially referencing Phair’s music; it’s really quite great, her gift for incisive lyrics translating unusually well to prose, and stands out from more by-the-numbers musician memorabilia.

Finally, Phair began her return to music in 2021, releasing a couple singles online while teasing a forthcoming album. Hey Lou is a surprisingly quirky and infectious ode to the late Lou Reed and his wife, experimental musician Laurie Anderson, which highlights Phair’s playful Funstyle side (but without the cringey indulgences); while Spanish Doors is a more straightforward (yet complex) electronics-tinged pop number. Both bode well for an album (see below) that, while almost certain to draw another round of “It’s Not Exile!” complaints, could make a strong case for Phair’s ongoing relevance.

 

 

Liz Phair poster 1

Liz Phair UK dates on the 2021 World Tour with Alanis Morisette

 

 

New album for release June 4th 2021 from Chrysalis Records

 

Liz Phair official website

Liz Phair (Wikipedia)

NPR Liz Phair Page

2021 New Yorker interview

2018 NY Times interview

“Horror Stories: A Memoir” (YouTube interview 2019)

Liz Phair biography (AllMusic)

Marc Fagel is a recovering lawyer living outside San Francisco with his wife and his obscenely oversized music collection. He is the author of the recently-published rock lover’s memoir “Jittery White Guy Music”. His daily ruminations on random albums in his collection can be seen on his blog of the same name, or by following him on twitter.

Marc’s previous posts include Elephant 6, Apples in Stereo, Sweet, The Bats, Matthew Sweet, Badfinger, New Pornographers, Bettie Serveert, Flaming Lips, Neil Young, My Morning Jacket, Raveonettes, Phish, Luna, Jesus and Mary Chain, Feelies, Genesis, Wilco, King Crimson, Brian Eno

TopperPost #956

3 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    May 18, 2021

    I had quite forgotten Exile in Guyville, or at least if not forgotten, had it crowded behind P J Harvey and Alanis and Hole and a couple of others. It is extraordinary as you say. And I’m loving revisiting it. But so is the rest of Liz’s career extraordinary, much of which I missed. But not now.

  2. Mat Baker
    May 18, 2021

    You’ve convinced me – I’ll try and revisit some of her latter work with my music fascist button turned off. The problem – of course – is that Exile in Guyville was so brilliant, that the softer, less angry path that she went down seemed like a disappointment. Great list, thanks.

  3. Soap Star Joe
    May 18, 2021

    I’m one of the three people who actually loved FUNSTYLE. There are more than just a few good tracks on it (some are off the wall, but enjoyably, authentically Liz).
    Somebody’s Miracle was the one I really didn’t like, if only because it could have been done by anyone. Everything else she’s recorded, whether lo-fi or hi-sheen production, was authentically Liz.

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