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Spotlight on: Liz Phair

Albums reviewed:
Exile in Guyville by Liz Phair
Liz Phair by Liz Phair
Comeandgetit [EP] by Liz Phair

Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville
Liz Phair, Liz Phair
Liz Phair, Comeandgetit [EP]

Don't hate Liz Phair for wanting to make a little money. Yes, she did make the classic female sexual angst album Exile in Guyville (written in response to the male-centric attitudes of the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street), and it is a terrific album. Raw, introspective rock; a great debut. I find myself returning to it often when I am in that sort of mood. Although it is humorous in some ways, it is also very dark.

And although it's obviously a very personal album, it has struck a chord with listeners all over--even men. I read somewhere that when her mother heard it, she cried because the emotions contained in it were so strong and right on the surface.

All in all, eighteen terrific songs with highlights such as: "Flower," "Gunshy," "Never Said," and "6' 1"." Plus a darkly sexy topless shot of Liz on the cover that goes a long way towards portraying the impression of defiant sexuality contained within.

And, as I hope you'll see, she's been selling out from the beginning. With her next album, Whip-Smart, she made her first video, for the song "Supernova," which was a moderate hit. But the album itself didn't deliver the punch of Guyville (except maybe the song "Jealousy") so I didn't get into it as much as before. After my purchase of the Juvenilia EP (also including "Jealousy" and her cover of the Vapors' "Turning Japanese"), I pretty much lost interest, especially after all the talk about her next album being all about her new marriage and baby. There's nothing worse for a woman's career than becoming unavailable. Just ask Alfred Hitchcock.

I didn't buy whitechocolatespaceegg when it came out (although I did recently) but even when it came out, critics talked about how she'd "gone pop" with her high level of production. So, I don't really see what all the brouhaha is over her newest release, Liz Phair. Sure, she got Avril Lavigne's production team, The Matrix, to "co-write" and produce a three or four songs, but that was after a failed session with Michael Penn. Notice the pattern here?

In fact, what made me aware she even had a new album out was the press junket she was on promoting Liz Phair the artist and album. Usually a self-titled release proclaims either a debut artist, or something particularly different from a know artist--a new introduction to that musician. In that sense, Liz Phair is only a minor departure. But it certainly has been created to seem mainstream-friendly. Sexy album cover (in a more polished, yet tousled, way) and heavy production notwithstanding, it's still a "Liz Phair album." The sexual frankness is still there (and "H.W.C." is a little too singable for my comfort) and even under the Matrix's genius (like the Dust Brothers before them) lies Liz's life story in sharp relief with songs about her new sexual freedom and her son's trouble with her new men friends.

This is still the Liz we all know and love. She's just a little glossed up. Unfortunately, that is going to be the album's downfall. She has alienated many of her old fans but at the same time has not made an album that appeals to the mainstream. I don't think this will be the big seller that she is hoping for for that reason. It has a split direction, the songs are true to her artistry, but the package is a big marketing ploy, with no overlap or true destination. Four producers worked on the songs (Matrix, Penn, Phair herself, and R. Walt Vincent--Pete Yorn's producer). That doesn't give anyone room to present an identity; you get used to a sound and it moves on. And if she's trying for mainstream success, why do a couple of songs sound like Poe (who we haven't heard from in over two years) and Aimee Mann, and why would she use the producer of Pete Yorn--all outsiders at best? And, when was the last time someone signed to a big label got rich off their recordings? Artists like Toni Braxton and TLC have sold millions of records and then had to file bankruptcy. Don't you need to have your own label to make that kind of money? Come on, Liz, help me help you by getting your act together.

While altogether the songs combine to make a good listenable album, it's not cohesive enough to put forth a consistent identity for the public to latch on to. In that way, it's more like a compilation of songs off several albums. The Comeandgetit EP (available on the internet with the purchase of the CD) feels at least more like the old Liz and is definitely worth the download if you can find it on a file-sharing network. With songs left over from the Michael Penn sessions and her own productions, these five songs show what Liz Phair could have been. That could have actually been a decent seller, and it wouldn't have turned off so many of her fans.

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