Wednesday, May 31, 2017

One Last Pick Through the Bins Volume 27: Liz Phair, and Corporate Rock Sucks

But not these guys....
For me, Liz Phair started more as concept than performer: a raunchy, female indie (still pop, but still indie) – artist. I came to understand her as a type before I knew her as a musician…and I’d say that’s on me, except I had only nice things to say about this Liz Phair. And then “Supernova” hit the airwaves (my mind still flashes to rowers when I hear that song), and I continued to think, “yeah, Liz Phair’s all right.” And “you fuck like a volcano” confirmed the raunchy thing.

Next, I heard (the fucking brilliant*) “Stratford-on-Guy” during all those looped listens of The Greatest Music Compilation of All Time. I can still play that song twice in a row to this day (*I just can’t explain why I find it brilliant).

And then about, oh, 10 years later, maybe 12, I spotted a couple Liz Phair albums on a hunting expedition – Exile in Guyville and Funstyle (bookended the career – yes!) - and I picked those up and, holy shit, infatuation, a full month’s worth of listens, etc. I fell that fast, that hard; I’d wake up in the morning, wondering what Liz was up to, what she had to say, that kind of thing. It only hits me now why that might be: my favorite song from each of those albums does something very different. Just a glance at the song’s titles (“The Divorce Song” (that link sucks, but I just found the original Girlysound recording - NEAT-o! (reference, what's Girlysound?); still like the official version) and “Beat Is Up”) should signal to the discerning listener that she should expect two very different songs.

And yet they’re not such different songs, at least thematically. The musical inspiration, sound, instrumentation couldn’t be more different – especially given that she wrote them both – but Liz Phair sounds comfortable with both approaches. When she’s being, writing and singing as herself, she comes off as authentic, and that makes the clear reaches on Funstyle come off. She has an ear for expression, for matching tone and theme; she’s neither perfect, nor universal, but she has a strong personality/persona/personal narrative that tells a good and interesting story, and I think a lot of people related to it. I know I can spend days on her songs (if more her lyrics than her music, though I’m thinking more about the latter after this week). That time she wasn’t herself, though…man, oh, holy shit. Dude, like, it wasn’t good…

Facetiousness aside, both Liz Phair (self-titled, not the performer) and Somebody’s Miracle actually compelled me to her Wikipedia page to see if I could find some sense of what the Hell went so very wrong on both those albums. As it happens, a couple things: Capitol Records had picked her up (better distribution – yay!), but didn’t like Liz Phair’s first edit, and she’d burned through her budget (boo!), so they/she insisted/let a production team called The Matrix take over and this is how bland music gets made – by committee and as commodity.

Not every song off Liz Phair sucked (for the purposes of this post, I’m focusing on only one album). If you listen to the playlist (each song peppered through this post, but also on Spotify), songs like “Extraordinary” and “Why Can’t I?” play as competent, radio-friendly indie singles…except for all the terrible cheese on “What Can’t I?” (a wistful echo after the first verse? seriously?), and people of a certain age will glance around the room for the closing credits of Melrose Place without really knowing why. Those songs are bland, but “H.W.C.” comes off as the cheapest, laziest sort of corporate branding. “H.W.C.” is a…god, I don’t care what it is, but stands for “Hot White Cum” (or “Come”; come down on the spelling one however you need to), and the song feels like it serves nothing beyond branding Liz Phair as “raunchy.” Raunchy doesn’t bug me – “Flower” is about starving dumb lust (in a woman, too) but that’s fine – but lazy bugs me, and everything about “H.W.C.” is lazy.

The one song I like on Liz Phair – “Take A Look” (the still over that video....yes! triumph to triumph!) – still plays more washed-out (over-produced) than I like, but it still sounds enough something she put out on Exile to beg the question of whether it wasn’t one of the ones that The Matrix couldn’t touch. At the same time, how different, how much more “raw,” does “Satisfied” (from Funstyle; also, video link frankly not worth it) sound from the couple songs I pulled off Liz Phair? The whole thing sounds sufficiently off that my strongest reaction to listening to Liz Phair and Somebody’s Miracle is the desire to ask her to name her five favorite five songs from those two albums.

Nothing convinces me of the truth of that argument like Funstyle. Five years had passed since Somebody’s Miracle when that album came out and, honestly (and not like I lived it, but), it could have broke either way: a regression back to what worked on Exile and (for me) Whitechocolatespaceegg (is better) or another step down the path of dreck (sorry, The Matrix!) she started with her, tragically, eponymous album. Instead of taking one path or the other, Liz Phair just sort of wandered off into the underbrush beside the path. If there’s a spirit to Funstyle, it’s “yeah, I'll do that.”

With that, I’m hereby tying Liz Phair to the singer-songwriters of the late 70s/early 80s (in my head…Joni Mitchell, Carole King, etc.), cheap comparisons be damned (and, wow, do I need to make good on that ignorance). When I listen to her, I see her standing on stage alone with session musicians playing behind her in half-light (sorry, guys, but thanks!). She’s up there alone. Her songs – especially the early ones – require that you think past her, for lack of a better word, presence to hear the rest of the music. It’s spare and basic, both on Exile through Whitechocolatespaceegg, but that always made her songs feel more personal. I love that kind of intimate intensity in performance; it’s even better (or can be) when the music feels the same way.

Funstyle brought back that same sensibility, but blew up the sound. It’s also worth noting, and depressing, that none of the songs off Funstyle show up in Liz Phair’s top 5 on Spotify….because, oh my god, her worst song (for me) tops the fucking list?

If there’s an indie creative mind-set, I feel like  it follows this loose credo of, “I don’t know what people like, I just know what I want to do, and I hope even 10 people here it (all while furtively hoping it makes them rich/famous, only on high-specific terms). That’s why certain people make art: you put what you love out there and hope the (sorry) right people respond. Until the Mental Wilderness Years (again, crap, what if that’s her favorite period?), Liz Phair lived that credo (in this somewhat specific fantasy). She came from a dis position I’d call particular-universal – i.e., a point of view that a specific portion of the population would understand both immediately and intimately. A lot of people would miss it, though, and who knows why?

If/when she puts out an album in 2017 (plans in the works…apparently?), I hope to hear something evolved, something she hasn’t done yet, but that will still sound like her, only with something else to say. And, why not, in a different way.

I have a lot more songs on the playlist, but I want to draw particular attention to the one song that stuck with me the most between that first, obsessive listening a few years back and today: “The Divorce Song.” Liz Phair was just 26 when she wrote that song (eh, what does Girlysound do this timeline...and to the canon! She was probably younger! Gah!), but I’ve never heard anything that so precisely touches on the slow-burning panic that surrounds a dying relationship – e.g. the things you can’t take back, and the burdens those drop on a relationship. She gets all that in under 3:20, and that’s nuts!

My original plan was to close this out with a list of all the songs I posted to a playlist on Spotify, but that seems silly. I think I’d serve visitors better by picking a representative song or two off each album that I feel is, sorry, but, worth a shit.

From Exile in Guysville, I’d go with…crap, I really love this one, forgive me, but “6’ 1”" (album edit is, uh, heavier),” “Fuck and Run,” (Girlysound edit), “Soap Star Joe” (given what survived on the internet, I really should have put more time into the whole Girlysound thing....fuck, not least because it's genuinely cool) – and, believe me, each songs I haven’t named feels like throwing a child off the Titanic! (crass or personal? I don’t know!), suffice to say the Spirit of Phair lives in that one.

Here, I want to slip in a personal favorite, one that I can't find on Spotify. The version of Exile I picked up includes a song called "Ant in Alaska" and, here, I'm happy to be able to pass on both the studio cut and the Girlysound edition.

As for Whip-Smart, “Supernova” feels more stand-out than representative. The title track, “Whip-Smart,” feels like a good medium for an uneven album, but “Dogs of L.A.” does the “personal” thing a little better, and we’ve covered that fixation. Whitechocolatespaceegg takes a clear step forward with a stronger sound/personal narrative (pay attention, Capitol Records!) with “Polyester Bride” (Girlysound edit...again), “Baby Got It Going,” and “Uncle Alvarez.” From what I read Whitechocolatespaceegg comes after Liz Phair’s marriage and, presumably, more settled, but not necessarily satisfied, life. As those songs demonstrate, though, the questions keep coming. They never stop, really…

…and that’s what Funstyle plays like to me: an artist picking up sounds and possibilities from what’s going on around her, and trying to make something new and personal out of it. To unearth one lead, “Bollywood” is an awkward song (and, never mind, all the video links are terrible; and this girl hates it...which I get; also, decent argument); even with a decent sense of rhythm, both on and a little off, Liz Phair is not made for rapping. “Bollywood” sounds like one step removed, but enough to understand where it’s coming from (and to play with the musician’s/rapper’s idea of how fame works…maybe? lipstick on a pig?). I like that song, though, as a symbol for how openly idiosyncratic she decided to be with Funstyle, assuming all the risk and standing on her own before the public. “Smoke” follows the same pattern…and it’s entirely characteristic of Funstyle – e.g., less “fun” than deeply personal. And that last one’s a good track.

This post has been more of a journey than most. First, I probably should have spent more time with the Girlysound stuff, because, face it, that's the anchor of her career. With her career (probably) somewhat dead, though, I still look at Funstyle as something...I don't know, something. I snuck out (maybe) and bombed (on some level), but the reinvention did feel sincere. I guess that's my question in a lot of this stuff: what's better, to try something fresh and (maybe) sincere, or keep grinding out a never-ending tour by riding your classics like, say, Quiet Riot?

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