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Living News: Liz Phair

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Racy ex-indie queen Liz Phair takes stab at pop charts

By Yoshi Kato, Special to the Mercury News
San Jose Mercury News, July 18, 2003

Leave it to provocative singer-songwriter Liz Phair to add a new twist to the self-titled album.

Eponymous albums usually mean a new act wants to announce its musical coming-out or a veteran artist needs to declare a return to form. But for Phair, it was a way to let the cover art explain the ambiguity she was feeling.

“In my twisted mind, my personal assessing of it, the album’s theme was the backslash — love/hate or sane/psycho,” she says. “And I kept on trying to come up with a title that reflects that.”

She used “Happy Tragic Thing” as a working title, but it didn’t get her point across. Finally, Phair’s art director suggested that she not worry about the album title and symbolize the backslash visually. The cover of the album features her seated on the floor with her arms loosely wrapped around a guitar, which slashes diagonally in front of her.

“Liz Phair” is her first new recording in five years. She road-tested the new material on a spring tour with the Flaming Lips. She returns to San Francisco on Monday to headline the Fillmore in San Francisco.

“The way I’ve come to walk through life is to know where I am based on my proximity in between two extremes,” the 36-year-old singer says by phone from Chicago. “And that’s reflected in my songs.”

Phair’s latest extremes are the distance between past accomplishments — indie stardom — and future ambition — mainstream success and exposure to a wider audience.

Her debut album, 1993’s “Exile in Guyville”, made her an indie queen. “Guyville” featured a do-it-yourself sound, catchy melodies and R-rated lyrics. It was the calling card of a mid-20ish voice with an upper-middle-class background who was exploring her own creativity and making her way through Chicago’s independent music scene.

“You really are going to be a product of your time and your place and your upbringing,” she says. “You can’t escape it.”

She followed up a year later with “Whip Smart”, which sounded more produced but retained an overall gritty feel. Her third, 1998’s “whitechocolatespaceegg”, had a more developed sound with lyrics emanating from a place between a pile of spiral-bound notebook journals and Randy Newman’s living room.

The advance word of her fourth album set the indie rock world and the music press abuzz. Now divorced and raising a soon-to-be first-grader in Southern California, Phair had gone from the independent Matador label to major Capitol Records. She also had enlisted help from the Matrix, the writing and production team behind Avril Lavigne’s smash hit “Complicated”.

It sounded like Phair was leaving the world of ‘zines and limited-pressing seven-inch singles for the land of TRL guest appearances and reality television. Some critics gave the album just passing grades, and some supporters felt betrayed before hearing it, based simply on the slick production team and major label.

“I don’t mind if people don’t like the record, because I sort of have my own plan,” she says. “I tried to describe it to someone once: ‘There’s this mountain I see, and I want to climb this mountain. We encountered a blizzard here at Base Camp 1, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to keep climbing the mountain.'”

“My vision is a lot longer than that.”

Listening to Phair’s latest is the musical equivalent to watching a cable channel that starts the day with children’s programming and ends with steamy content early the next morning.

“Why Can’t I?” one of four Matrix-assisted tracks, is harmless, indistinguishable pop with lyrics that don’t live up to her previous cleverness. “Red Light Fever”, one of five numbers produced by Michael Penn, features a singalong chorus and a fat posse of flowing guitars. A touching tale of a child dealing with his mother’s new boyfriend, “Little Digger”, is the most personal song on the album while “H.W.C.” finds her returning to the topical saltiness of her first two albums.

When played live, the Matrix collaborations sound less radio-ready and more just out of the bedroom, she says. That, in turn, helps to tie her collective songbook together: “It really meshes together well. You’d be surprised.”

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