By Paul Stelter
The Washington Times, March 31, 2004
“I was the first person to ever use their own hair on that show,” says Liz Phair of her recent appearance on NBC’s nostalgia drama American Dreams. See her and her hair Sunday at the 9:30 Club.
Miss Phair was indie rock’s queen after 1993’s stunning debut, Exile in Guyville, an intensely confessional and highly explicit deconstruction of her life and relationships in Chicago.
The album reflected “that whole chain-in-the-back-pocket, rock ‘n’ roll indie crowd,” she explains by phone from the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas. “[A] small town of ‘male equals macho, female equals second-class citizenry,’ ” she playfully snarls.
These days, Miss Phair bears little resemblance to an indie-rock girl. Now 36, she’s a divorced mom who lives in Los Angeles and is prone to Britney-style fashions and poses. Plus, she hired the Matrix production team, the Avril Lavigne hitmakers, to co-produce her latest album, Liz Phair (Capitol).
Has she sold out for pop stardom? As Avril might say, it’s complicated. The new album’s music and lyrics are definitely more radio-friendly than its predecessors, at times excessively so. But as “Guyville” was a declaration of independence from the male indie scene, Liz Phair sounds like a separation, if not a divorce, from the old Lilith Fair scene.
Authentic and personal with a minimum of navel-gazing, the songs scream “accessible.” The powerful “Little Digger” finds her worried about her broken family: “I’ve done the damage, the damage is done/I pray to God that I’m the damaged one.” (Regrettably, there’s no divorce song here to equal her old “Divorce Song”.)
But accessible cuts both ways. The overproduced “Extraordinary” and “Why Can’t I” have cheesy echo vocals typical of some Disney Channel singer. Yet for audience recruitment, “Why Can’t I” seems a winner: adult themes (double infidelity) disguised as catchy teen pop.
We do get the wonderfully acid tongue of the old Liz when the dating scene becomes a new Guyville in “My Bionic Eyes.” A jaded Miss Phair notes: “These are the same old guys I never had any use for/beyond the feeling of pleasure.”
Despite being “a lot more settled and grounded and happier” than in her Guyville days, Miss Phair admits she still has concerns: “But see, even when I had it, when I had a marriage, what did I do to it? Wasn’t quite able to settle into it fully.”
And she still has her “carefully guarded area of vulnerability and insecurity.”
“I don’t think I’d really want to lose it totally,” she says. “I think you’d lose a bit of your soul.”
Nor does she want to lose her old material; she’ll play a lot of it Sunday. “I would never undercut my own strengths,” she says with a laugh. “I mean, the old stuff is great. I can’t write stuff like that anymore.”
“Changing life circumstances.”
Her old abandonment issues crop up in “Good Love Never Dies”, where she feels forced to “keep it exciting, make it attractive, keep it alive, keep you coming back/I’m always so frightened you’ll see through my act.” Luckily, she knows that eventually “you’ve got to throw your hands up/and let the night come.”
Next album, maybe.