by carl wilson

'They're Planets, Just Like Us'

The Elliott Smith memorial wall on Sunset Blvd. in Los Angeles.

Thoughts today on two contemporaries - one who died, a year younger than me, and one who survived, a year older. Listening to their music you always could have guessed which would be which.

Elliott Smith's apparent suicide took place two years ago today. I shared my reaction and reflections with a music-discussion mailing list that day; a week later (Oct. 28) they became the first post on Zoilus. Unreleased studio recordings have apparently been circulating on the net this week.

A live review of a Liz Phair concert was the first thing written specifically for this site, a couple of weeks later. Today I've got a piece in The Globe and Mail about Phair's new album, Somebody's Miracle, in anticipation of her concert here on Sunday. Readers of both articles might notice that I've grown even more enthusiastic about her last album since then, but overall the thrust of both reviews is similar to what I said then: "the perennial devotee's demand that she reliably serve our needs and not fuck up... is an expectation she's never once encouraged or fulfilled before. The degree to which the Liz Phair album is full of wrong moves ... is the degree to which it is in fact perfectly in character."

Comparing the two of them, who both came out of the box with that wary, mocking gaze that middle-class North Americans our age adopted as a spiky covering to fend off a sense of insignificance (compared to the boomers, compared to the metastasization of media that we grew up with, compared to what looked like a culture without time or space for us), Smith always stayed stubbornly, vulnerably in character while Phair became the chameleon, and ever more so in recent years, willing to adapt, grow gills to breathe the same polluted waters on which Smith seemed to choke. (We're going back to that subject of why Kurt Cobain, who was exactly my age, looked like more than just one dead rock star.) Neither choice is ideal. But we don't get an ideal choice. The whole "problem" is a privileged condition. And more than ever, as much as I empathize with and often admire the martyrs, I side with those who want to stay and fight, even if it sometimes means playing possum, slipping on the disguise. It's moving when Destroyer sings, "Don't become the thing you hated." But all kids hate grownups, and I still want to be one, as messy and discouraging as that can be.

Also in today's Globe, a review of the new Freakwater album, Thinking of You...: O Grrrlfriends, Where Wert Thou? Kentucky-based duo Freakwater drew a line in the mud between country traditionalists and the "alt-country" fans of the 1990s. Setting sharp atheistic irony to old-timey string-band music was bad enough; the off-kilter harmonies were beyond toleration. But Catherine Irwin and Janet Bean were only bending the sound to the warped America they knew. On their first reunion this century, they belt out that painfully smart malcontentment with fresh vigour. Slithering textures by Chicago mutant-roots band Califone (electric guitar, pump organ, baritone ukelele) distance the music even further from any trace of purism. And in Bush country, it sounds like an arriving cavalry. (Freakwater plays the El Mocambo on Saturday.)


Now here's a little savoir Phair. Blogfight connoisseurs, notice the gratuitous M.I.A. reference.

[... continues ...]

A Phair mix in a muted tone

The Globe and Mail
Friday, October 21, 2005

A rising young songwriter recently told me that non-musicians didn't get it: "They think you're plotting out your whole career when actually you're spending hours searching for a rhyme for 'hat rack.' "

I recalled those words as I combed through a dozen years of clippings about Liz Phair. She's just released her fifth album, Somebody's Miracle -- or, as journalists subtitle it, The Follow-Up to Her Controversial Bid for the Mainstream. Among many fans and critics, 2003's Liz Phair met with the sort of heckling that dogged Bob Dylan's "gone electric" tour: "Judas!" Or rather, "Jezebel!"

Some said the Technicolor production on songs such as minor hit Why Can't I? proved the artist who made 1993 alt-rock landmark Exile in Guyville had mortgaged her soul. Others clucked that the salacious lyrics and risqué cover shot were unseemly for a lady of 36, even though those were the elements most similar to a decade earlier.

This is the special flavour of venom spat at women who set their own courses in male-dominated genres. Witness the current Internet sniping at British rap upstart M.I.A. But it's particularly reserved for Phair, who's never been willing to pick a side, as either vixen or waif, arty recluse or ambitious careerist, raw memoirist or myth-making manipulator.

That refusal may be a privileged one, but so is the cult demand that she remain rigidly faithful. The indie diehards remind me of her son pouting at her suitors in the song Little Digger, "My mother is mine." Except that they're not toddlers. Chronologically.

They forget that 1993's Liz Phair was sneered at for being an upper-class schoolgirl from the Chicago suburbs who couldn't play live and was not from the music scene. (All basically true: Guyville was her attack on that world, particularly an alt-rocker ex-boyfriend.) They also seem to have missed the pop leanings of the albums between her debut and her big-budget rebirth.

Phair always had a slippery sense of humour. By giving her last album her own name, was she identifying it with her "true self," or referring to her public image in the third person, as she often does in interviews? Few noticed that in her scantily dressed cover photo she held her guitar so that it formed a slash: "Liz/Phair," as in "Either/Or."

I thought the album a grand romp, second only to Guyville itself. Why Can't I? brashly swiped the sound of Avril Lavigne's teen hit Complicated to address something genuinely complicated, adultery. (After all, Lavigne's persona came down from Guyville, via Alanis Morissette, in the first place.)

My first reaction to Somebody's Miracle, with its more "organic" adult-rock sound, was that it was a failed triangulation, straining to win over both old and new fans. I blamed the backlash for the wall of cliché that is lead single Everything to Me, her blandest song ever. (The blah band-in-rain video says it all.)

But what if Phair was just searching for rhymes for hat rack?

The muted tone might merely reflect her current state of mind as a divorced Los Angeles mom. And some of Miracle makes me gasp. In the title track, she despairs: It seems I may never know how/ People stay in love for half of their lives./ It's a secret they keep between the husbands and wives:/ There goes somebody's miracle, walking down the street.

Being close to Phair in age, I find her passage from the overly knowing cynicism of Guyville to this unsteady humility all too familiar.

The dirty talk and production styles never really mattered. But neither Phair nor her critics seem to see clearly enough that her songs win or lose on distinct melodic hooks and uniquely telling lyrical details. Period.

Take the perfect Liz Phair twist midway through Leap of Innocence, a thumping ode to lost love: "And my mistake/ Was being already married." Or the acoustic Table for One, which rummages through an alcoholic's bottles, hidden in holes in the walls.

Such moments don't quite rescue Miracle from its weaker half. And Phair is at the end of her famous five-album record deal - what if it's not renewed? She has expressed envy for self-employed artists such as Ani Difranco, an option cut off mainly by her early stage fright, which limited her touring. She has beaten it now, so maybe the straight-A student will risk the entrepreneurial route at last.

Meanwhile, the catchiest chorus on the new album is on Stars and Planets, ananti-celebrity anthem that (sounding like John Lennon's Instant Karma) astronomically observes, "Stars rise and stars fall/ But the ones that shine the brightest aren't stars at all/ They're planets, just like us." That is, they're vast unknown spheres, whose orbits happen to catch the light.

I'll mind that thought before I second-guess Liz Phair again.

Liz Phair plays the Phoenix on Sunday, $20.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, October 21 at 2:32 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (9)


COMMENTS attcheddawnheheld

Posted by forceful on November 18, 2005 6:57 PM



Johnny Cash too. Seriously, he sometimes sounds more out to me than Freakwater.

Now, they are *different* than the classics. They don't have the "belting" approach of Wells, or Cash, or the Stanleys. Which is why I thought of the fairly non-belting Carters. But they're different than the Carters too -- more moany-groany. I suppose I can see why some country fans don't like it -- they put out a rock-type disaffected persona, and they're completely un-slick, which isn't the case with country music generally, including the Carters. Freakwater's ensemble sense is sloppier and looser than trad or modern country, and their intonation is slacker than modern country, but not really slacker than a lot of trad country.

So I take back my initial surprise that fans of trad country don't like them, but the difference isn't in the intonation.

Thanks -- this has been clarifying!

Posted by John on October 22, 2005 11:34 PM



Hmm, really? OK, then, Kitty Wells. Famous for, shall we say, a harmolodic sense of intonation.

Or, Stanley Brothers. Some of the stuff I've heard, those notes are *stretched*.

Posted by John on October 22, 2005 11:03 PM



Plus, John: Actually the Carter Family is the locus of the argument. The argument being that the Carters sang in tune, and that Freakwater (or as some country fans I know call them, F***kwater) is often out of tune and that only some punk-rock ignoramus would think that's country.

Posted by zoilus on October 22, 2005 2:12 PM



I think that last comment was spam, yet somehow it seems so apropos.

Posted by zoilus on October 22, 2005 1:44 PM



"Charmingly so. Why don't you do that sort of thing when you can?" answered her brother, glancing at her thin, bare shoulders and hands, rendered nearly useless by the tightness of the gloves.

Posted by Sam R.Viagra on October 22, 2005 1:57 AM



Liz Phair hit it big just after I moved away from Chicago. Some of my musician friends were chagrined by her instant success. I sympathized with the envy but recognized her catchy tunes and unique persona and understood why it resonated with lots of people. When she came to Seattle I caught her show. The drummer had produced her record. I had met him before he produced Liz; he had seemed like a morose guy, trying to scrape by. Now playing with an indie phenom -- well, I've rarely seen a musician look so happy. And I dug Liz's stage persona at the time -- uptight tight-lipped suburban chick, wearing a black turtleneck and an elegant necklace. No airs. I saw her on Leno a few weeks ago and wasn't convinced by her transformation into sexy shantoozy -- it didn't bother me in itself, she just wasn't very good at it -- she's not a natural-born boogie-er.

And I loove Freakwater. Catherine Irwin has written many great songs. People who complain about their intonation must not dig the Carter Family either. I can understand not digging the Carter Family. But if you're a roots country fan, well, they're one of the major sources. Can't say enough good things about the Carter Family.

Posted by John on October 21, 2005 11:38 PM



All quite apt, MissLiss - which is why I say, "Such moments don't quite rescue Miracle from its weaker half." We might disagree on which ones work & which don't but I agree the package as a whole is way below par. I have no problem calling it her worst record ever.

Posted by zoilus on October 21, 2005 4:51 PM



re: "Phair's songs win or lose on distinct melodic hooks and uniquely telling lyrical details."

that's precisely the problem with this album, though. too much of the writing on Somebody's Miracle relies on ciphers, completely inane generalizations on love and life and existential thirty-somethingness that lack any kind of lyrical detail.

in conversation, she's sharp and articulate, but the writing on this album sounds entirely phoned-in. perhaps it's her version of a defeated sigh. i can't speculate on that, though there are as many songs about industry BS as there are about unsteadiness in love. as i've said before (and will say again), possibly the best song from the Somebody's Miracle sessions, Can't Get Out of What I'm Into, which exploited Phair's trademark wit and fuck-your-expectations causticness, didn't make the final cut.

i agree that there are MOMENTS on the disc - the line you cite being one of them, Table for One another - but it's so frustrating to hear a woman who seems so naturally whip-smart (sorry) and hyperverbal resort to piffle like "with me you'll feel protected/you'll never be rejected," as she does for the better part of the disc. my quibbles on that level far outweigh any issues i have with the production. i wholly enjoyed the glossed-up, grappling-with-domesticity Phair of Whitechocolatespaceegg, which feels to me like a bizarroland twin to this record.

Posted by lisstless on October 21, 2005 3:07 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson