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Phair mixes introspection, youthful vigor

Fame & Fortune: Rock singer Liz Phair

In all phairness, the woman’s music is totally about the words

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Singer bringing new ‘Somebody’s Miracle’ to Pabst

By Jon M. Gilbertson
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, October 26, 2005

Liz Phair has twice been an inadvertent symbol.

First, with her 1993 debut album, Exile in Guyville, she symbolized the triumph of indie-rock (and, concomitantly, women-in-rock) artistry.

Second, with her 2003 re-emergence – after marriage, motherhood and divorce – and a self-titled album, she symbolized the ups and downs of going mainstream.

In neither instance did Phair enjoy representing anything other than herself.

“There was a ‘Why you?’ reaction in both cases,” Phair said by phone Monday, in preparation for her show tonight at the Pabst Theater. With Exile, she added, “It was ‘Why you? You’re blond and from the suburbs and sing about sex.’ But going through the pop door with Liz Phair was really brutal, too. I was receiving the impression in the business that everyone considered me basically over.”

After “Why Can’t I?” became one of the breakout singles of 2003, everyone stopped saying she was over. Somebody’s Miracle, her new album, declares that Phair continues to pay substantially more attention to her artistic purposes than to anyone else’s reaction.

“I have to find new things to aim for,” she said. “Like this year, I keep thinking about what goals I’d like to reach in terms of touring and playing live, and last time it was about radio. I take on new challenges.”

Somebody’s Miracle mounts its own challenge to listeners, daring them to acknowledge Phair’s distinctive mix of youthful vigor and grown-up introspection. The neon-lit, candy-colored pop-rock of Liz Phair has modulated, yet for all the reflection of the new CD’s title track or “Wind and the Mountain”, this music doesn’t lack tenacious hooks. As Phair noted, it needs hooks, because the emotional content is tougher.

“It’s not a happy record,” she said. “I try to make it hopeful in the end, because it’s a mature version of myself, but there are a lot of regrets on it.

“Whereas a lot of people tend to look at my earlier work and see that youthful ‘you did this’ attitude, it’s a lot harder nowadays for me to say that. You can’t see what it is about you that causes problems, but you’re not so hard on yourself or other people.”

Phair remains playful – the effervescent “Stars and Planets” and the glistening “Lazy Dreamer” prove it – but Somebody’s Miracle gives her playfulness more consistency than Liz Phair did. She attributed this, in part, to working with fewer people in a shorter period.

“The last album was really a compilation of five years of recording experiences,” she said. “This new record is more of an intentional thing from start to finish, all recorded at the same time with the same motivation. It has an emotional continuity.”

Phair also credited John Alagia, who produced the majority of the album. Alagia is best known for his work with Dave Matthews and John Mayer, and – much as it might pain the same hipsters who criticized her for going pop – his work with precisely those guys was what got Phair to recruit him.

“They’re both very good songwriters, and I like the attitudes they have,” she said. “I’m not attracted to the angry isolationists anymore, and after I had my son, that whole us-and-them mentality, I can’t get with that.”

Like any artist worth the title, Phair drives herself with, or is driven by, the need to keep searching.

“It’s like being kicked out of the Garden of Eden,” she said. “You might as well start walking, because you can’t go back where you’ve been, and you haven’t reached where you need to go yet. That’s how I feel about my career right now.”

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