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Phair’s Fair

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Blunt Rock: Liz Phair

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Liz Phair’s vibrant first album spoke crisply of lust, won her slacker fans and topped US polls. Barney Hoskyns listens to her second offering

Few rock artists making their debuts have been greeted with such an avalanche of acclaim as thundered down on Liz Phair last year. Her double-album-length CD Exile in Guyville struck a chord throughout slacker America so deep it shocked the life out of the poor girl. “I figured if we made it to 2,000 copies we might have a shot at re-pressing the thing,” she says with a chuckle. “I was just a neighbourhood kid who wanted to show the boys I could do it.”

But then that, in great part, was what the lo-fi, multi-poll-topping, expletive-splattered Guyville was about: a girl on the outside of the male indie-rock underground circuit, half wanting in, half wanting to mow down the black-clad, middle-class navel-gazers with her rage and her lust and the sheer nous of her music. The fact that Phair wrote the album’s 18 songs in mirror-image response to the 18 tracks on The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street — that male-strutting rock double album to end all double albums — made Guyville an even more cogent statement.

The irony of Guyville‘s success is that it not only propelled Phair out of Guyville itself — the nickname given to the artsy low-rent Wicker Park section of her native Chicago (where the lesbian film Go Fish was made) — but temporarily robbed her of her subject matter. “I went through a period of not knowing how to write songs,” she admits. “But then I just stopped worrying about Guyville and started writing what I felt like.” The result of this screw-’em-all burst of self-expression is the fetchingly titled Whip-Smart (Matador).

Now that she’s moved boldly into the arena of stylistic diversity and studio trickery, it’s no longer so easy to pigeonhole Phair somewhere between the dank eroticism of P.J. Harvey and the sophomore tetchiness of Juliana Hatfield (mixed in with a little old-school Michelle Shocked:). The sound of songs such as “Jealousy” or “Cinco De Mayo” alone is proof that she’s got the hell out of Guyville — the bare-all candour and vulnerability has been toned down. “Guyville was written for me and maybe some people around me, whereas this album definitely wants to be listened to.”

It is possible that in reaching out more determinedly across airwaves, Phair will lose the slacker fans she connected with last time around. But she herself suspects that there’s still something obstinately quirky about her “beautiful pop-rock classics that don’t get played on the radio”.

Quirky they may be, but the 14 songs on Whip-Smart should at least see a little more attention paid to her musical artfulness than the titillating effect of (in her own words) hearing “a nice girl talking about fucking. I decided to play on people’s expectations and then just flip around on them.”

She adds that despite the album’s title, her image this time will be less sassy-meets slacker — or “downhome Madonna” — and a tad more jaded. She’s learnt the hard way that the music business is run by “men who only want to sluttify you”, which is why she’s decided to direct the video for her second single herself. “There are more female voices in pop culture than there were,” she says, “but we’re still treated like novelty acts.”

By Barney Hoskyns
Vogue (British edition), October 1994

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