By Jeffrey Lee Puckett
The Courier-Journal, November 7, 2003
Over the last six months or so, music critics have pretty much taken a collective bat to Liz Phair’s head — and they’ve swung for the fence. Her new album, Liz Phair, has gotten reviews that run from lukewarm to zero on a scale of 1-10, including one on Pitchfork.com that said the album “proves so ultimately unnecessary, it might as well not even exist.” She’s been called a sell-out and been accused of pandering to the mainstream for the sake of record sales.
Phair is either used to it or doesn’t care. She has been consistently smart and fair in interviews, defending herself without getting defensive. Either way, it’s an accomplishment.
“I’ve had a great time with this record,” she said. “The only hard part is touring on a bus. The band all make fun of me.”
So why all the fuss? Long story.
In 1993, Phair came out of nowhere to release Exile in Guyville, which was the perfect record for the time. Indie-rock was probably at its artistic peak, with rock ‘n’ roll being stretched and pushed into strange and glorious directions. But it wasn’t very sexy. In fact, it was nearly androgynous and close to sexless.
On Exile, Phair came up with a bold sexual persona that raised legitimate gender questions, added real depth to her songs and, frankly, made guys insane with lust. In Phair, they saw someone who would let them tie her up and later discuss the finer points of Beat Happening.
Over the years, a few things have become clear: Phair is a person who changes, not a static persona; her music is a process and also subject to change; she may never make a record that resonates in the same way as Exile, but what have you done lately? And, finally, Phair is a self-described chameleon, someone who often adapts completely to her surroundings.
That’s a big one. How can Liz Phair be a sell-out if Exile was a fantasy?
“There’s an axix upon which I fluctuate, if that makes sense,” Phair said of being a chameleon. She’s even admitted to changing the way she dresses on tour to reflect local tastes, like a benign “Predator” who only wants to fit in.
“A few months ago, I was absolutely dressing for each city. You’re not going to believe this, you’re gonna think I’m crazy, but I took high school French and when we went to Paris on this tour it all came back to me. I could actually do some interviews in broken French. It was like I was absorbing the Frenchness of the city.”
So if Phair is absorbing TRL on Liz Phair, then fine. In concert, she can still channel the Exile Liz and rekindle the glory days when it was just you, her album art and your imagination. If nothing else, the album has finally gotten Phair on a full-time tour. Her famous stage fright is history, cured by finally learning how to properly sing. The breathing techniques, she said led to deep relaxation that let her slow down and take control.
“I stopped worrying so much about the audience, and I could frame it in such a way that we were all there together, hoping that a song would happen,” she said. “When the first album came out I thought that people were judging me. Is she a slut? Is she an art girl? I never thought of it like they were listening to the songs.”
So state all you want tonight at Headliners Music Hall, 1386 Lexington Road. Phair won’t sweat it, especially after surviving six months of smackdowns. Showtime is 9 p.m., cover $18, and Wheat opens.
Featured Image: Liz Phair (Photo: Phil Poynter)