By Alan Sculley
Everett Times, February 27, 2004
It appears reports of the demise of Liz Phair’s career were greatly exaggerated.
Last summer, when Phair, who had long been a darling of critics and the indy music scene, released her self-titled fourth CD, it unleashed a torrent of criticism. The CD found Phair abandoning the lo-fi, more intimate sound of her much-lauded 1993 debut, Exile In Guyville, for a big, slick, commercial-sounding production.
Even worse, she teamed up with the songwriting trio the Matrix (Lauren Christy, Graham Edwards and Scott Spock) to write four songs. The Matrix, of course, was responsible for crafting the music on Avril Lavigne’s mega-successful debut CD.
The New York Times said Phair was committing career suicide with the CD. Other reviews were just as harsh.
Eight months later, Phair and her CD are alive and kicking. Liz Phair has yet to become a major hit, although with her song, “Why Can’t I?” featured in the movie, Win A Date With Tad Hamilton, a return to the singles chart could be in the offing. In any event, this spring’s tour by Phair is a sure sign her CD is not dead in the water.
“I don’t think the record label (Capitol) feels like we’ve tapped it out yet, which is really, really good,” Phair said.
And while the furor over the CD has died down, Phair, who said she was surprised by how venomous some of the reviews were, has clearly done her soul searching over the reaction. In the end, she wondered if her CD symbolized a far bigger disappointment for indy music fans.
“Maybe I was like the last artist down the pike before they had to accept that the music business is not the same, do you know what I mean?” Phair asked. “It was a death knell to that whole idea that indy (music) was going to come back and that this big business that we are in right now wasn’t really real.”
Phair said she decided to work within the major label system by giving Capitol Records what the label wanted — a few potential hit singles — in order to buy herself the ability to do other tunes that spoke entirely to her artistic impulses.
“I know exactly what’s going on out there in the business world, and I fully intend to be able to have my hits, so to speak, carry my smaller songs, just like the way in indy of yore it was supposed to be,” Phair said. “Make your big-screen movie so then you can do your independent features. That’s exactly what I’m doing.”
The Phair/Matrix songs have especially been vilified and at least to a degree, justifiably so. “Extraordinary” and “Rock Me” are lightweight by Phair’s standards, while “Why Can’t I” shares more than a few similarities with the Matrix-penned Lavigne hit “Complicated”.
But Liz Phair has redeeming material as well. The refreshingly understated and tender “Little Digger”, finds Phair, a divorced single mother, dealing unflinchingly with the moment when her young son is trying to understand what an overnight stay by a boyfriend means to his world. The melodic mid-tempo rocker “Firewalker” possesses an especially beguiling melody. The hooky rocker “Love/Hate” offers a thorny look at sexual politics.
And to Phair, 37, most critics have completely missed the fact that “Liz Phair” fits entirely within the overall story she’s been trying to tell since she first raised eyebrows with the sexually liberated songs on Exile In Guyville.
“My sense of my music is I am telling stories of a girl to woman’s life,” she said. “And I am logging on historically as putting down I may have worked with the Matrix, but they’re still my stories — and everything about what I do is telling this story of what it was to be me, what it was to be a woman during this time period and how I felt and how my feelings conflicted and the messy truths of a woman’s life.”