June 24, 2003
Coming out with a self-titled album halfway into a musical career is usually a bad sign. It’s indicative of an artist’s attempt to change her public image or to return to her “roots.” These artists almost always opt for ditching the quirkiness that earned them a record release in the first place and aim to fit current fads. For female performers, this means dumping drugs and ditching runny mascara, instead wearing Versace to movie premieres, and fitting their entire leftover rebel attitude into a mini Hot Topic tie. Ultimately, there is one path that these reformachicks take: they grow to out-of-this-world proportions through radio play and MTV, spend two months max at the top of the charts, and then fall mysteriously into oblivion. It’s time for Liz Phair to enjoy the short-lived hype of her long-anticipated fourth record before she grabs a seat next to Tiffany in has-been hell.
Phair grew up in Winnetka, Illinois near the filming site for John Hughes’ glorious 1980s messes like The Breakfast Club, that focused on geeks drooling over winning prom king. After all these years, the subliminal conformity messages that tiptoed into Phair’s cranium during her childhood have finally emerged. Liz has traded in her penchant for penning unconventional but excellent zingers that rocked despite being recorded in her bedroom. Now, she produces perfectly predictable standard pop-rock tunes recorded in state-of-the-art studios. After a divorce, a baby, and hitting the age of 35, one would think Phair would be fairly settled down in her life and career. Sadly, Liz Phair shows the exact opposite.
Exile in Guyville’s 1993 release established Phair as a solid songwriter with a naughty girl reputation. The relaxed guitar and raunchy, morning-after crooning impeccably cushioned Phair’s coming of age lyrics. Spotlights “Glory” and “Divorce Song” held the album together like glue. The simply produced, effortless rock rhythm slowly morphed into a harder, more professional sound on Whip-Smart. Startling lyrics like, “He said he liked to do it backwards/And I said that’s just fine with me/That way we can fuck and watch TV” in “Chopsticks” preserved Phair’s bad girl image. In 1998, Liz brought Whitechocolatespaceegg. Chock-full of more mature, palpable love songs, like radio sensation “Polyester Bride” and soundtrack favorite “Uncle Alvarez,” the album ventured into pop and studio production more than its predecessors. So, how is it possible that the same girl responsible for Exile et al was able to write the rampant crap on Liz Phair?
Unquestionably, it has something to do with the Matrix, the three-person power team responsible for Avril Lavigne’s top five singles, including the excruciating “Sk8rboi.” By enlisting the Matrix to co-write and produce half of the album and Pete Yorn’s producer R. Walter Vincent to produce another five tracks, Liz is aiming to, as she put it for Rolling Stone, “Sell some records, goddammit.” There’s nothing wrong with wanting to attain popularity and recognition or chart-topping success after all these years of persistent songwriting. The only problem is that the songs are only half as good as anything Liz has ever written-and half as worthy of fame.
“Little Digger” and “Extraordinary” are the only songs worth their place on a Liz Phair album after layers of studio tweaking are shaved off. On the other hand, the guitar prelude and background vocals in “Rock Me” sound unbelievably radio-tailored. The Matrix’s addition “Why Can’t I” mimics “Complicated” in its echoing background vocals, accent-only guitar, and ultra-catchy chorus. If only it had been kept for Avril, it wouldn’t stain a perfectly good discography. “Take A Look” is boring; “Favorite” is creepily jubilant. The jungle rock beginning of “It’s Sweet” falls flat against the sugary, high-octave chorus of, “It’s sweet how you believe you’re in love with me.”
In the past, when backed by edgy, rough guitar and a breathy, conversational voice, Phair’s lewd verses sounded perfectly suitable. Now, shock lyric throw-ins like, “Give me your hot, white cum” are backed only by jovial guitar jaunts, silly clapping, and a third-grade chorus voice. Her characteristic vocal range from prissy schoolgirl to tear-ridden divorcee has disappeared. The voice respected for its imperfection is barely visible; the studio-doctored crooning in its place is smooth, firm, and glossy. Unfortunately, it leaves the songs endlessly homogeneous. The “new voice” is unable to carry off lines that teeter between dirty and clean, and frankly, it sounds too synthetically saccharine to please anyone-Avril or old Liz Phair fans alike.
To the Matrix’s credit, their songs are catchy. Really catchy. But if you’re looking for a little more substance or actual quality, then you’ll want to avoid shelling out 15 bucks for the overproduced teenage-pop agony that is Liz Phair. If you want to get your hands on an album that demonstrates Phair’s actual talent, definitely skip this one and return to Exile. Bland, overproduced junk pop has exploded in hefty proportions throughout this album, and the Liz-penned cuts are no exception.