erasing clouds

All's Liz Phair in Love and CD Reviewing

review by matthew webber

Liz Phair, Liz Phair (Capitol)

Every time I walk into a record store, I see Liz Phair's naked body. Every time I open a music magazine or visit a music website, I read yet another article containing the phrases "Liz Phair," "Exile in Guyville," "producers the Matrix," and "hot white cum." Phair, the onetime indie-rock princess and self-professed "blow job queen," has never been more exposed.

Also, Phair has never been more panned.

Overzealous male rock critics/not-so-secret admirers have transmogrified into scorned sixth graders, ripping up their valentines from a girl they no longer know. The phrases "sounds like Avril Lavigne," "identity crisis," and "career suicide" appear in their articles as often as "the" or "and."

But many of these critics miss the point of why people, or at least non-critic people, listen to music: because they like it. Also, they forget there's scarcely any such thing as bad publicity. With her Maxim-ized album cover and her willingness to explain herself in interview after critic-assuaging interview, Phair has played the popular press like a (guitar's) G-string. If the Xbox-playing boy toy she sings about in "Rock Me," one of her new songs, really "don't know who Liz Phair is," he does now. She's as ubiquitous as that Canadian sk8ter chick she's unabashedly trying to sound like.

Liz Phair's first single, "Why Can't I," was co-written and produced by the songwriting team the Matrix, who until now were most well-known for writing and producing Avril Lavigne's first three hits. If it sounds like "Complicated," which it does, that's the reason. If it's received any radio play, which it has, that's also the reason. It's catchy and sugary, the better to make its subversive sexual medicine go down. The irony of kids Lavigne's age humming along to "Why Can't I" is that they're harmonizing with a singer with an appetite for relationship destruction. The song's huge chorus belies the cheating heart of its verses. The lyric "we haven't fucked yet but my head's spinning," which rhymes with "we're already wet and we're gonna go swimming," is perhaps slightly unnecessary but most definitely gleefully foul.

It's Nine Inch Nails' "Closer" for the high school class of 2005. Or "it's Avril Lavigne for old people" as a friend so aptly phrased it. Perhaps the Michael Penn-produced tracks on Liz Phair are Aimee Mann for young people. Whichever way you call it, "Why Can't I," Liz Phair, and Liz Phair are tuneful more often than not, an apparently mortal sin when performed by a serious, formerly critically acclaimed and generally unknown artist.

Of course, not every song on Liz Phair is as successful in its pop. Some songs "pop!", as in "deflate." "Favorite," a song-lenth metaphor about a lover as "my favorite underwear," and "H.W.C.," about the aforementioned "hot white cum," are as embarrassing as you might think. They'd be funny if Phair didn't take them so seriously, or if someone like Weird Al were singing them.

I once read somewhere that artists sell out when they radically change their sound or image for the sole purpose of selling more records. Okay then: Phair sold out. Big time. She certainly isn't indie anymore.

But if you don't carry any Exile in Guyville baggage, which I don't, Liz Phair sounds like a well-crafted pop album. Not that there's anything wrong with that. "Extraordinary" (in which Phair claims to be your "average everyday sane psycho supergoddess"), "Little Digger" (a letter to her son), and "Rock Me" (where "rock," of course, means "fuck") rock me (where "rock," this time, means "rock"). These are the songs with crossover potential - and these are the songs that crossed over for me for real. For whatever reason, Phair was one of those artists I always wanted to get into but never did, until she released her newest album and I read about her in every magazine. (In the July 2 Village Voice, for example, three different critics reviewed her album.) She played me like a G-chord.

E-mail me your questions, comments, and suggestions at

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