By Tris McCall
Inside Jersey, December 11, 2010
Liz Phair’s fans count on her to be surprising. Maybe a bit capricious, too.
But nobody was prepared for “Funstyle.” The latest disc by the singer-songwriter features Firesign Theatre-style sound collages, funk-outs and funny accents, a lengthy parody of music-industry executives, and one track of Phair rapping over bhangra beats. In between the experiments are confessional songs similar to those that made her indie-famous nearly two decades ago.
Early critical reaction has ranged from cautious cheers to outright bewilderment. Phair, who concedes that the album is “a little slap-happy,” isn’t worried. She believes the world will catch up to her.
“All my records get reassessed,” says Phair, 43. “People forget that the early press on ‘Exile in Guyville’ was bad, too.”
Now recognized as a lo-fi landmark, “Guyville” confounded listeners upon its release in 1993. Who was this sharp-tongued feminist from Chicago, and why was she responding, song by song, to the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street”?
The album “was something precious and complete,” says Phair, who promises to play material from all six of her albums at her show tomorrow night at Maxwell’s in Hoboken. “It was made at a time in my life when I was literally doing nothing else. I had no job, no boyfriend, no connection to my old friends. I was in an isolated artistic world.
“All I did for months was think about that record.”
On that album, Phair played with song form, rhythm and modulations, squeezing strange, arresting chord changes into her three-minute pop songs. Her dry alto vocals and her guitar were left flat, which gave the tracks the immediacy of journal entries. Most notoriously, her language was tart, witty and occasionally blue.
It’s a testament to how fiercely “Exile in Guyville” was embraced by its admirers that each subsequent release has been greeted by cries that Phair has abandoned her native sound. She has made her own intervention in this discussion, packaging “Funstyle” with tracks from her self-produced Girlysound cassettes, made before she signed her first record deal.
“I’m trying to show something that I’ve been eager to show for awhile. ‘Guyville’ was a particular sound, but it wasn’t my original sound. When I was thinking about how to make ‘Funstyle,’ I went back to my Girlysound recordings. By including them, I hope I’m giving people a road map to the new stuff.”
On “Funstyle,” Phair sounds as unfettered as she ever has. The two album she made with full major label support — 2003’s “Liz Phair” and 2006’s “Somebody’s Miracle” — drowned her guitar in overdubs. Both sets contain many excellent songs, but the strong writing can be tough to access because of the production.
That’s not a problem this time around. The “Funstyles” rap track “Bollywood” is little more than an Indian drum machine, sped-up vocal samples and Phair’s enthusiastic rapping. “I was just trying to be obnoxious,” says Phair. “I am a huge listener of many different styles of music, and rap is definitely one of them. It’s not like it’s anything new for me. That was a funny thing about the Girlysound tapes — I was ripping off rap artists back then.
“I’m trying to be sassy and in-your-face. It’s a mock takedown, a spoof, and I’m taking on the establishment.”
It’s impossible to deny that “Funstyle” is funny. Phair considers sound design another instrument of hers, and the collages she’s assembled are as acerbic as Zappa. “U Hate It” is a dialogue between her and two grumpy music critics. “Smoke” puts her on the telephone with a record company executive who speaks in the garbled voice of a “Peanuts” adult. “Beat Is Up” is Phair’s impersonation of a loathsome, tabloid-reading social climber.
“That kind of hilarity and wackiness was born out of doing television cues,” explains Phair, who has composed music for “Swingtown” and the new “90210.” “It’s just playing around and laughing until you’re literally weeping. Now that I’ve gotten a chance to vent, maybe the next thing I do will work from a tradition.
“I honestly don’t know why I get people so upset.”
Feature Image: Liz Phair (Photo: Darren Ankenman)