By Robert Cherry
The Plain Dealer, August 1, 2003
Ten years ago, Liz Phair elbowed her way into a grunge-dominated music scene with Exile In Guyville, a track-for-track response to The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street from an enlightened female perspective.
The invocation of that uncontested rock classic, combined with Phair’s sexually frank language (she “did” oral pleasure on disc before Alanis Morissette), was too much for repressed pop critics to handle. Whipped into an accolade-spurting lather, they hailed Phair as an indie-rock genius.
Times, of course, have changed. And so has Phair, now 36. But only to a certain extent. Her self-titled new disc is closer in theme to Mick and Keith’s last-album-that-mattered, 1978’s Some Girls, titled so, according to Richards, because they couldn’t remember all of their partner’s names.
Call Phair’s new one — her first in five years — “Some Dudes”.
There’s the object of her obsession in “Extraordinary”. The Xbox-playing young buck in “Rock Me”. The co-adulterer in “Why Can’t I”. The DNA-provider in “H.W.C.”. And on and on for 14 effervescent tracks, as if through a revolving bedroom door.
Like Some Girls, there’s also a controversy attached to Liz Phair. Senior readers will remember the hub — and, indeed — bub that greeted the four-on-the-floor disco thump of Jagger’s “Miss You”. You call this rock? pundits howled. Can we have more, please? cried the millions who bought it.
Similarly, Phair’s original fans are crying sellout because she — gasp — borrowed Avril “Complicated” Lavigne’s production team, The Matrix, for several tracks. A no-no for a self-manufactured “edgy outsider”, as Phair’s label boss recently branded her, as opposed to a wholly manufactured teen-rock rebel.
The New York Times called the disc an “embarrasing form of career suicide,” adding, “you half expect the i’s in her liner notes to be dotted with little hearts.” Phair responded with a letter to the editor in short-story form portraying the writer as a jiggly-necked Chicken Little serving a readership of three.
“I’m like a lightning rod,” she says, laughing. “It’s completely a tempest in a teapot. I definitely knew there would be a little of this, but I didn’t expect the amount. It also made me realize how relevant people still thought I was — that they would care so much.”
Lost in the back-and-forth about the Phair’s ambitious taste in producers is the music. The new album really isn’t a great departure from her previous album, 1998’s whitechocolatespaceegg. And Phair, once shaky of voice, is singing better than ever.
Further illustrating the divide between herself and some early fans, Phair admits she has a difficult time listening to her acclaimed debut because of her voice.
“When I was little I used to love to sing. And then I got self-conscious. The hardest thing for me about Guyville is hearing the self-repression in my voice. I can hear the tightness,” she says. “Emotionally, it’s really been great for me to become a better singer. It lets me open up to an audience live.”