By Mary Dickie
Toronto Sun, October 20, 2005
When Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville came out in 1993, it was greeted as a revelation — a uniquely intelligent, sexually honest female voice from the trenches of modern romantic warfare, wrapped in a bare-bones production. Soon, Phair became everyone’s fantasy indie-rock queen.
When you’re up on a pedestal, you have much farther to fall. Maybe that’s why Phair’s been getting such a hard time from the critics for changing her approach on her frankly commercial recent albums, 2003’s Liz Phair and the new Somebody’s Miracle, which feature co-writes with seasoned hitmakers and much slicker production.
“It’s weird — I didn’t know I was running for office,” the American singer joked over the phone recently in mid-tour.
“I think I represent a national debate over the state of our music scene, whether it should be purist or commercial, and I’m a pretty good target for people to vent their opinions on.”
Interestingly, Phair’s stripped-down acoustic tour this summer was warmly received, so maybe it’s not her new songs — which are less about a wild girl dating than a single mother looking for enduring love — that are offensive, but their polished production.
“That’s partially true,” she said. “But it may also be a male-female thing. My label did some research to find out why the last album didn’t sell as much as they wanted. And they found that women care about the words, and guys only care about the sound, and the pictures. And I’m all about the stories. I’m not a production person, really.”
Exile was a song-by-song response to the Stones’ Exile On Main Street, and Somebody’s Miracle started out as a similar rejoinder to Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life before it got sidetracked.
“I spent a lot of time thinking about that,” she said. “I’m a visual artist, so I don’t approach music the same way other people do. And one of the things I find productive is to listen to someone else’s great album and think about what I really respond to in it, and how I can measure up.
“Some of these songs were responses, but it became clear that I would have needed another year to finish it, and it costs a lot of money to be in the studio. I feel bad that I never got to finish it, but it helped me get back in touch with some of my strengths. It’s always good to take a class and learn.”
Phair has also learned from co-writing. “It’s more fun than working on my own — more of a lark,” she said. “They’re less me, but kinda fun that way. It’s a nice break, like recess, or dressing up for a party and letting someone else do your hair and makeup.”
Phair plays the Phoenix Sunday.