By Brad Maybe
CMJ New Music Report, June 2, 2003
Remember that scene in Full Metal Jacket, when the crusty old Colonel asks Joker how he could wear a peace symbol, while his helmet reads “Born To Kill”? “I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir,” Joker replies. The Colonel, clearly not amused, then asks Joker if he loves his country and invites him to join the team “and come on in for the big win.”
As Liz Phair prepares to release her first studio effort in five years, a self-titled pop-rock number, her career is oddly paralleling that scene from FMJ. On one hand, much of the new disc finds the Chicago native wearing her trademark “Born To Fuck” helmet, while she plows through racy subject matter that isn’t too far from what she explored on her decade-old debut Exile In Guyville. The always-bawdy Phair sings about the untold joys found in male ejaculation (“H.W.C.”) and the gratuitous sexual exploitation of a man nine years her junior (“Rock Me”). But on the other hand, her single-mom maternal instincts guide her through more sensitive issues like her son’s confusion upon seeing his recently divorced mother dating other men (“Little Digger”).
“I’ve found that many of the songs on this record are grappling with two extremes of the same issue,” says Phair. “It just becomes apparent to me that I can’t follow the center line very well. And over the years, I could get lost too far on the left and be this whacked out stoner artist, all dark and haunted, or I would go too far to the right, and be too bubbly and a Pollyanna suburbanite dimwit. So, in order to try and maintain a peaceful existence in my life, I go between the two extremes at a faster rate. I touch the left, I touch the right, and I go back and forth. My lawyer calls it ‘balancing the extremes.'”
Phair zig-zags over the center line on “Extraordinary”, the new album’s leadoff track. Her passionate pleas for attention are punctuated by claims that she’s “just your ordinary average sane psycho”. Her sanity soon takes the backseat to the psychotic, however, and with an empathic “Who the hell are you?” she resolves that the man she initially desired doesn’t deserve her after all.
So, is “ordinary average sane psycho” an admission that all women are crazy?
“Oh, absolutely,” affirms Phair. “Would you want us any other way? That’s the essence of womankind — this ability to be docile and placating and peaceful, the gentler sex, while at the same time being able to turn men to stone like Medusa, or become the unbearable shrew. It’s the whole package.”
Indeed, all these things can be found in the Liz Phair package, from innocent vulnerability to vindictive retribution to shocking bluntness — all indelibly transmitted through her patented indie-pop sound.
“It’s my Girlysound trademark,” says Phair. “The whole thing is to have this very non-threatening presentation of provocative lyrics. That’s been my whole shtick since I was 18. I used to record on four-tracks that I would speed up, so I sounded even more like a little girl. My whole thing is that the young female voice is the least authoritative voice in any culture. I really like the concept of singing things that initially seem so benign, but then hit with some hideous, unexpected content. I love that.”
Case in point: Liz Phair‘s “H.W.C.” is one of the gooiest pop songs you’ll hear this year, but its chorus of “Gimme your hot white cum,” will leave a somewhat squeamish feeling in the hearts of the weak.
JOINING THE TEAM
Then there’s the Colonel’s advice: “Join the team.” “Come on in for the big win.” After the disappointing performance of 1998’s whitechocolatespaceegg, was Liz Phair looking to produce a record that would reach beyond her current fanbase? You bet your “Born To Fuck” helmet she was. Phair signed on to work with the songwriting/production powerhouse the Matrix, comprised of British singer Lauren Christy, her husband Graham Edwards and Scott Spock. It’s this trio that is responsible for giving us pretty much all of Avril Lavigne‘s hits. They’re now off working with Britney Spears and Ricky Martin. Some might view their method of churning out popular music as a dark, disposable cloud stinking up pop culture like a summer shower of diseased frogs. One can only imagine the unspeakable horrors that take place deep in their dungeon recording studios: souls are sold, bones are eaten — it’s a horrible scene, right?
“I know people probably want me to paint them as the big, bad whatever, but it was just totally pleasurable to work with them,” says Phair. “You don’t have to like their style, but they certainly have a good thing going.”
Phair actually found much in common with Christy, and the two moms quickly bonded in their short time together producing four of the new album’s 14 tracks (“Extraordinary”, “Why Can’t I”, “Rock Me”, and “Favorite”). Sonically, these songs aren’t exactly the equivalent to “Fuck And Run” and “Never Said”, but they certainly share the same matter-of-fact bluntness and empowering female sexual positioning that brought Exile much of its acclaim.
“I struggle with that,” confesses Phair. “I used to try much harder. There was a point on this album where I was trying to organize my songs according to Exile. ‘What’s the equivalent of “6’1′” on this record?’ That record was my PhD. I had no responsibilities in life, no job. I sat in a room with my guitar, totally outside of society, post-college. I was in this no-man’s land of society; I didn’t belong anywhere and I was pissed. I was very pissed about not being appreciated or not being given any value by the male musical intelligentsia of the time.”
THE BIG WIN
However many guffaws the Matrix collaboration will draw from the unforgiving indie set, five of the album’s tracks were produced by Michael Penn, while Phair herself and R. Walt Vincent (who worked with Pete Yorn) also worked behind the board.
“I just loved when Lauren did vocals, because with Michael Penn, we’d just do it again and again and again and again,” explains Phair. “Lauren just had no patience for that. She’d say, ‘OK, that’s good. Let’s go home.’ Everybody’s style is different. With Michael, I felt like I was in a marathon, and I learned to sing more with him. With Lauren, it was exciting, because she had the same patience level as I do. We just wanted to get a believable take. Michael is like the great mighty Oz. He did all the edits by hand. It was sick. He has very high standards. He’s very meticulous with sounds.”
Tracking for this album began about four years ago, as Phair started working on demos herself, so when the time came to start compiling Liz Phair, she already had a lion’s share of songs to choose from. “I’ll probably post the tracks that didn’t make it on the album on my Web site,” she reveals. “But I wanted this record to rock, and that’s how I picked the songs that made it on the record. I wanted something you could put on when you’re in a certain mood and it takes you all the way through.”
The new release will also see Phair embarking on her first tour in years; in addition to her current stint with the Flaming Lips, she’ll also be performing at the Field Day Festival in Calverton, New York on June 7. Finally, the self-styled “Supernova” will head out on her own acoustic tour.
Having seen her share of ups and downs in the industry, like any artist, Phair’s hopes for her new album are simple. “I would like to see the work and effort I put in, like touring, be reflected in sales,” she admits. “I would like to see a nice normal ratio in the record business; for effort in to equal results out. You never see that, but it would make me a happy person. And then, if anything else moves along faster than the effort that I put in, that’s not a problem. It’s just frustrating to work and work when nothing comes of it.”