Friday, April 28, 2006

Liz Phair, Rock Goddess.

In a world where you can climb on stage and lip sync the words to an awful song while dancing amidst smoke, water and flame and be considered a star, I offer an alternative. Even though she has been around for almost 14 years now, I think a lot of people need to be introduced to Liz Phair.

Liz is the child of intelligentsia types and studied Art History at Oberlin College before launching headlong into the world of music following a post graduation stint living in California. When she set out to make her music she went low tech all the way, recording in her home and dubbing the songs on to a tape, which she called Girly sound. The tape made it's way around the Chicago music scene and became the stuff of indie biz myth and legend. Anyone who was cool or hip enough to be anyone had a copy of the tape, and soon the record label, Matador, did as well.

Phair's genius wasn't lost on the folks in Hollywood and they rushed to re-record many of the songs from the Girly sound tapes and issue the record under the name "Exile In Guyville" in 1993. There is a lot of conjecture over whether or not the record is a track for track response to the Rolling Stones "exile on Main Street" as has been proposed over the years. What is clear about the record is how different it was from anything else on the radio at the time. Just like Grunge made it's push to the fore in the wake of the sickening glam fest that was male lead rock in the 80's, Phair seamed be more real and honest than the popular female before her.

One thing that both backers and detractors pointed out as most different about LP was her up front use of sex and sexuality in her song writing. Her lyrics on Guyville ranged from the playful "they make rude remarks about me, they wonder just how wild I would be" on the track "Help Me Mary." To the more overt such as "every time I see your face I get all wet between my legs." on the song Flower, which as since been used for the intro to the show "L Word". Flower continues "I want to fuck you like a dog, I'll take you home and make you like it."

That was just not what many of us were used to hearing from a female artist in the early 90's. We were fed a steady diet of Madonna, who when you look back on her, was really quite tame when it came to her music. She seamed more overt in movies, and her Sex book, but her songs lacked an edge that LP had to spare. Guyville had other strong gender reversing lyrics like "I take full advantage of every man I meet" on Girls, Girls, Girls or "Johnny my love, get out of the business, it make me want to ruff you up so badly. Makes me want to roll you up in plastic, and toss you up and pump you full of lead. in the track Dance of the Seven Veils.

Phair continued to push the limits of both her song writing and her singing style on her next full length record Whip-smart which came out in 1994. The lead track on the record was "Chopsticks" yet another track from the original Girly sound tape. The second track on the album was the one that most people remember from it, however. "Supernova" was a song that had all of the features we have come to expect from a Liz Phair song. There are the driving guitar riffs, the funky melodies and sexually overt lyrics like "your kisses are as wicked as and M-16, and you fuck like a volcano and you're everything to me."

I think the people who were so enamored with the amazing raw qualities Guyville possessed were surprisingly let down by Phair's lack of big time polish on her sophomore effort. This is where people first started saying things like "she can't even sing" and "she's no (insert 80's female star here). Even though Whip-smart is my least favorite of her 4 first records, I still think it is an amazing piece of work for it's time, and I know it had an impact on artists who followed it.

I found 1998's whitechocolatespaceegg to be my favorite all around record of Liz Phair's. Right off the bat the title track has more fantastic guitar, and there is a more mature feel to her vocals. Now a mother, LP penned some of the coolest and most finely crafted songs of her career. On the track "Perfect" Phair sings along to a quite acoustic guitar and backing strings with the words many use to describe how she wishes to be seen. "I want to be cool, tall, vulnerable and luscious. I would have it all if I'd only had this much no need for Lucifer to fall, if he'd only keep his mouth shut."

The album is full of great images, and a full serving of Phair's deep sultry singing, all of which add up to a record you can listen to straight through. My favorite tracks are Polyester Bride, Baby Got Going, and What Makes You Happy all of which are fun easy to listen to songs with playful, smart and relevant lyrics almost any listener can identify with. On the latter track she sings quoting her mother "Listen hear young lady, all that matters is what makes you happy, but you leave this knowing my opinion won't make you love me if you don't care to." What child can't relate to that?

The second to last track on the record is called "Shitloads of Money" and is a re-recording of the track "Money" from Girly sound (as is "Bride") in which she opines on the issue of selling out that faced most Indie artists of her time. "It's nice to be liked, but it's better by far to get paid" she begins and then adds "I know most of friends that I have don't really see it that way. But, if you could give 'em each one wish. How much do you want to bet, they'd wish success for themselves and their friends and that would include lots of money." It's funny that the track at the tail end of the third record, which was written 8 or 9 years before, was a foreshaddowing of her Fourth record.


"Liz Phair" her self titled fourth record was met with anticipation, uneasiness and finally both a smattering of success and a silent head shake from her former indie fans. I never understood how it was that although they all had also grown up, and changed no doubt, they wanted LP to be the same raw twenty something she was when she gave us Guyville.

I really liked the fourth album in general and absolutely loved a few tracks in particular. It kicks off with "Extraordinary" complete with the great Phair guitar sound and very telling line "I am extraordinary... if you'd ever get to know me." I don't know if Liz is ever upset that she has never received the acclaim she deserves, but this song seamed to point out what most people were missing about her. She gives us a contradictory, yet apt tag line for her in this song, just as she did in "Perfect" when she says she is "just your ordinary, average, everyday, sane/psyco super-goddess." Most people will remember this track, or the big single "Why Can't I" where Liz reminds us that she is still Liz with the line "we haven't fucked yet, but my head's spinning."

If an old fan of her's was listening to the CD in order they may have though she went soft despite the previous line when they reached "Little Digger" a song about her son asking questions about the new guy in mom's life. However, any fears were appeased when we reached track 11 innocuously titled H.W.C. where while backed up by simple bass and guitar she sings "all you do if fuck me every day and night" and "give me your hot white come." Same old Liz. The song "Rock me" is also a stand out, and here Liz begins to champion her new message. Just because she is pushing 40, that don't mean she isn't sexy to younger guys. "Oh baby you're young but that's ok. What's give or take 9 years anyway?"

This past year Liz put out her fifth record, "Somebody's Miracle" which has already given me two new favorites. The tracks "Why I Lie" and "Everything (between us)" are Liz Phair singing and songwriting of the highest order. The single off this record was "Everything to Me" which again is more pop than most of her old fans will like, but if they would give the record a chance they would see that it is just a damn good record. It's most notable absence is any profanity of any kind, but it is not a glaring omission in any respect. She may not be saying fuck, but the attitude is all there on "Why I Lie" and the song also sports my favorite guitar line of her's ever. This song just has tremendous balls, and her vocals are even more raw then some of the tracks on "Liz Phair". You can really hear it when she sings "And if you ask me why I hurt you. I don't understand it. I can't help myself. It's a special combination of predatory instinct and simple ill will."

On the slow, sultry track "Everything (between us)" she commands "let your body move real slow. tell your body we left yesterday. Let your body hold me close. Let your body move you." I have worn these tracks out on my DJ, and they made me remember why I like Liz Phair in the first place. She is cool, and while not tall, she looms large in my world of music. She opens up to her listener with her sometimes vulnerable lyrics and she is by every possible account so luscious.

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