Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Liz Phair

Sound Familiar?
“Never Said,” “Supernova,” “Whip-Smart”

Who Is She?
Super cool indie rock queen turned pop rock princess.

Liz Phair started out as an artist in San Francisco—a starving artist, that is. After she was unsuccessful in San Franciso, Liz moved to Chicago (close to where she grew up) and supported herself by selling charcoal drawings on the streets of Wicker Park.

She joined the alternative music scene in Chicago by recording demo tapes under the name Girly Sound, and eventually became friends with the bands Material Issue and Urge Overkill. Liz also befriended record producer Brad Wood, which was pretty smart on her part.

Liz asked Brad what the coolest indie label was, but the answer was fairly obvious, so she called up Gerard Cosloy over at Matador Records. Gerard listened to the Girly Sound tapes and immediately fell in love. Liz began rerecording her demos and added some new tracks, resulting in 1993’s Exile in Guyville.

(Fun fact: Exile in Guyville was meant to be a song-by-song reply to The Rolling Stones’ 1972 album Exile on Main Street. Critics didn’t really see the connection, but couldn’t deny that Liz’s album was the bee’s knees.)

Critics and audiences alike drooled over Liz’s debut, praising her blunt, honest lyrics. But not everyone really got what Liz was all about. Leading the revolt against Ms. Phair was Steve Albini (better known as the audio engineer behind such ‘90s staples as Nirvana’s In Utero and PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me).

In response to an article praising Liz (and several other artists) as an “explicit rejection of much of insularity that increasingly characterizes underground music,” Steve called Liz a "pandering slut" and claimed she was “more talked about than heard, a persona completely unrooted in substance, and a fucking chore to listen to.” Harsh, Steve. Very harsh.

But that didn’t stop Liz. Her second album, 1994’s Whip-Smart, received an overload of media attention and the first single, “Supernova,” became a Top 10 modern rock hit. Unfortunately, Whip-Smart received mixed reviews and didn’t sell nearly as well as Exile in Guyville.

Liz’s third album, 1998’s Whitechocolatespaceegg, marked a drastic shift in maturity in the singer. The album reflected some of the ways marriage and motherhood had affected her (she got married in 1995 and had a son a year later).

Promotion for Whitechocolatespaceegg included extensive touring with the Lilith Fair lineup and fellow chick rocker Alanis Morissette.

Where Is She Now?
Swimming in the mainstream (and getting a lot of shit for it).

Working on her fourth studio album proved to be a huge pain in the ass. When Liz had initially finished the album and sent it off to her new label (Capitol Records) for approval, the label slammed it and told her to work with another producer to make a better (more commercial) record.

So Liz worked with the production team known as The Matrix (the masterminds behind Britney Spears and Avril Lavigne) and came up with four bubblegum pop songs. The album, Liz Phair, was released in 2003 to scathing reviews.

How scathing were the reviews, you ask? Well, critics from just about every publication (including The New York Times) accused Liz of “selling out” and committing an “embarrassing form of career suicide.”

Singles “Why Can’t I?” and “Extraordinary” did end up becoming Top 40 hits in North America, but that didn’t really help Liz’s indie cred.

Somebody’s Miracle, released in 2005, was a return to a more traditional rock sound, but it was ultimately unsuccessful.

In 2008, Liz signed with ATO Records, rereleased Exile in Guyville and began composing music for TV dramas. Two years later, she leaked a new album, Funstyle, on her official website and basically admitted that the record was an experiment.

After Funstyle, Liz left ATO Records and toured to promote the album.

But Why Liz Phair?
In addition to reviewing books for a living, Liz is currently working on a new album and a novel!

What Does Sam Think?
Liz gets a lot of shit and she doesn’t deserve it. Before I wrote this entry, I had no idea how much critics hated her self-titled album. Sure, it has some poppy tunes, but what’s wrong with that?

I believe I’ve talked about how totally pointless I think the term “selling out” is before (think back to my Green Day entry). Does it really matter that much to you if an independent artist signs to a major label? If you like the music, who cares about the politics?

Before I go on full on rant mode here, let’s just talk about Liz’s body of work.

Exile in Guyville is a great album. It’s smart, blunt and little feisty. Did Liz single-handedly save music with it? No, but it’s still an important record. The Chicago music scene in the ‘90s was very much male-dominated (Urge Overkill, Smashing Pumpkins), so (good) female solo artists were hard to come by.

What makes Liz stand out is not her lo-fi sound, but her low-key voice. She kind of sings in a monotone, but somehow that’s not as boring as you’d think. It makes her sound detached, which makes her fit perfectly into the decade that celebrated apathy and a “whatever” attitude.

And her lyrics. Oh, her lyrics. Liz likes to explore her sexuality through her lyrics (sometimes explicitly). Take these lines from “Flower” for example: “Every time I see your face / I think of things unpure and unchaste / I want to fuck you like a dog / I’ll take you home and make you like it.” Beautiful, no?

Even her poppy songs have some sexy undertones. Here’s a line from the all-too-popular “Why Can’t I?”: “Here we go, we’re at the beginning / We haven’t fucked yet, but my head’s spinning.” Honestly, I never noticed that line when I was 12. Seeing it now kind of makes me like the song even more.

Liz Phair may have crossed into the mainstream, but it hasn’t killed her creativity (or her cleverness). She’s still an indie queen in my book.

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

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