Liz Phair (Photo: Phil Poynter)
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Liz Phair complicates her sound by going pop

Exiled from Chi-ville, Liz Phair goes for the score

Liz Phair’s Exile in Avril-ville

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Singer imitates those who imitated her

By Greg Kot
Chicago Tribune, June 22, 2003

No matter what anyone thinks of Liz Phair’s new self-titled album, she wants to make one thing perfectly clear: The bright, shiny uber-pop sound of “Liz Phair” (Capitol) isn’t some record-company scheme. On the contrary, it’s exactly the album she wanted to make. And to hear her tell it, it’s the album she always wanted to make, but didn’t know exactly how — until now.

“For better or worse,” Phair says in an interview, “this is who I am right now.”

Who Phair has become is viewed as a sellout at worst, a major misstep at best, by many of the same critics and fans who swooned over her 1993 debut, “Exile in Guyville”. That album established the then-Wicker Park resident as one of the decade’s most vibrant songwriting voices with its mix of explicit confessions, punk-feminist attitude and rough-’round-the-edges sonics, paving the way for Courtney Love, Alanis Morissette and now Avril Lavigne. It also helped put Chicago on the indie-rock map in the early ’90s. “Guyville” remains an unimpeachable classic, even if Phair was still finding her way as a singer, writing lots of songs in un-rocking waltz tempos, and playing guitar like the self-taught bedroom recluse she once was.

“As I get older, I wouldn’t fight if I thought something was too commercial, and I wouldn’t fight if I thought something was too quirky.”

— Liz Phair

But her fourth album, due in stores Tuesday, is far removed from that template: It’s loaded with gleaming, arena-pop productions, some of them modeled explicitly on those found on Lavigne’s multimillion-selling 2002 debut, “Let Go”, right down to several collaborations with the Canadian teenager’s production team, the Matrix.

“I first heard Avril’s song [‘Complicated’] blasting from a car while I was walking around Manhattan Beach, then again a few days later blasting from another car, and I’m like who the hell is that?” Phair says. “I heard a powerful girl — it’s a sweet voice, not totally scratched up and raw like Courtney Love, but you could tell it was someone with a strong opinion. I love Norah Jones, but her impact is soft; she has more in common with Vanessa Carlton and Michelle Branch. But ‘Complicated’ was confrontational, and I liked that. And there were four hooky parts in the song. Just when you thought you had heard the main hook, another vocal line would come flying in, and it would arch to a new high point. It was like, ‘Damn! Are you kidding me?’ Maybe that doesn’t excite you, or it’s horrifying to you that I’m excited by that, but I was totally blown away. I just remember feeling a pang of jealousy, thinking I’d love to have a song like that.”

Avril-izing her album

After sessions with Michael Penn, Pete Yorn producer Walt Vincent and guitarist Gary Clark that produced dozens of songs (some of which are included on “Liz Phair”), Phair sought out the Matrix team — Lauren Christy, Scott Spock, Graham Edwards — to Avril-ize her album.

“We’d start out with Lauren and me in a room with a crappy little boombox and our notebooks, scribbling away, which is exactly how I would normally work anyway,” she says. “The difference is the big shiny product they’d put together from the core of the song with Scott’s production and the different musicians coming in for the transitions, and Lauren’s backing vocals. It was like Christmas walking in to hear what they’d done.”

Phair is clearly thrilled, though she acknowledges that she’s bracing for plenty of “bad press calling me a sellout.” After I heard a quick preview at the South by Southwest Music Conference, the forthcoming album struck me as a “Hollywood lube job”, and subsequent listens haven’t altered my thinking. Entertainment Weekly opined that the album is “guaranteed to alienate a large chunk of her fan base.” And the San Francisco Bay Guardian said the album is “sure to go down as one of music’s most unexpected, embarrassing and disappointing reinventions.”

Disappointing, yes. But a reinvention? More like an evolution gone awry. Phair’s pop aspirations aren’t anything new, and they’ve been creeping into each of her four albums with increasing prominence. When I interviewed her in the weeks before “Exile” came out, Phair had this to say:

“I have the radio on constantly, and I don’t hear the indie-rock people who supposedly influenced me on the radio. I can’t see that I’m part of indie-rock.”

A couple of years later, Phair remained consistent in her desire not to be shut out of the mainstream: “I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of stuff that I listen to on the radio, and I want to be what I’d experienced. I want to contribute to my generation’s sounds, what it associates with the times.”

Openness to music

The problem was, Phair didn’t have the chops to make her mainstream-radio ambitions come true. Since then, she has worked hard to beef up her shaky alto with voice lessons and to tame her once-debilitating stage fright to the point where she actually looks forward to touring. From a technical standpoint, “Liz Phair” is the work of a confident professional trying to fit in with the music-industry landscape, whereas “Exile” was the product of a self-taught original who had no idea how the music industry operated. What’s stayed constant, Phair insists, is her openness to making music of all kinds, from scruffy indie-rock to radio pop.

“It doesn’t matter if I’m recording with the president of the United States, or a 9-year-old down the street, I approach recording the same way,” she says. “I have a conversation like I would with anyone, and I try to find our meeting ground, and I try to figure out how I can get my way without squashing what they do best, and how I can incorporate what they do best into the mix. I don’t mind so much what kind of music we make, as long as it’s the best kind of music we could make. As I get older, I wouldn’t fight if I thought something was too commercial, and I wouldn’t fight if I thought something was too quirky. I wouldn’t tell Michael Penn how we have to sound. It’s just not what I do. To me it’s about the emotion behind a song, whether the arrangement is working for the song and whether I personally like the song. Those are the three things I spend most of my time fussing over. Can I sing the song and feel like it’s mine? Does anything in the song annoy me? The rest, it can be what it wants to be.”

And Phair insists her collaborations with the Matrix satisfy her on all fronts. “Try singing these songs in the shower if you doubt me,” she says.

She’s hoping that commercial radio listeners do exactly that. But it’s difficult to imagine Lavigne’s predominantly teen audience identifying with Phair’s songs, which come from the perspective of a divorced, 36-year-old mother of a 6-year-old son assessing her missteps and re-entering the singles world with a mixture of exhilaration and anxiety.

Phair’s album is being well-received at so-called “Hot AC” stations that are aimed at an adult female audience. She’s getting airplay at WTMX in Chicago and KYSR in Los Angeles, alongside Lavigne and Pink. Younger-skewing modern-rock stations such as WKQX in Chicago are ignoring the album. “She’s written some very poppy songs, but our audience is primarily men 18-to-24, and they’re not demanding that we play her music,” says Tim Richards, WKQX program director. “But women 25 and up are going to relate to songs where she talks about the soccer-mom lifestyle [such as ‘Little Digger’].”

Full of cliches

Unfortunately, it’s not just the production lacquer that makes “Liz Phair” a dud. It also falls short of Phair’s best songwriting. The songs are larded with cringe-inducing come-ons (“I am extraordinary if you’d ever get to know me”) and Def Leppard-worthy cliches (“Baby, baby, baby, if it’s all right, want you to rock me all night”). If “Little Digger,” about her son walking in on Phair with her new boyfriend, matches some of the emotional poignance she explored on her 1998 album, “whitechocolatespaceegg”, the explicit “H.W.C.” is the kind of sex-kitten pandering that, had it come from a more prominent cultural voice like Lavigne, could set feminism back a few years.

More frustrating for hard-core Phair fans are outtakes from the album sessions that have surfaced on the Internet, which suggest that the singer had the makings of another intensely personal album, but chose to abandon these more intimate recordings for a more bombastic approach. She acknowledges as much; her collaborations with Clark “brought stuff flooding out of me, feelings of sadness, that I had been masking.” But only one of those songs — “Red Light Fever” — made the album, in a gussied-up Penn production.

It’s one of many misjudgments that suggest Phair isn’t getting the best career advice since moving to Los Angeles several years ago. The singer says she has never been more in charge of her music. But if so, she has lost touch with what once made her great. Trying to seduce radio by copying the sound of a teenager who, whether she knows it or not, owes everything to “Exile in Guyville” is an especially uninspired idea coming from a woman who made her reputation by subverting the process and outsmarting the competition. Now, it sounds like the only one Phair has outsmarted is herself.

Featured Image: Liz Phair publicity photo from 2003’s Liz Phair. (Photo: Phil Poynter)

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