by carl wilson

Liz Phair. The Guvernment, Toronto, Nov 15/03

In "Help Me, Mary" -- track 2 of her decade-old debut Exile in Guyville, which Liz Phair played about a dozen songs into her Toronto show last night -- Phair sings about her plan to get back at the guys who hang around and "bully the stereo" in her apartment:

"I keep my mouth shut tight, I practice all my moves, I memorize their stupid rules ... I'm asking you, Mary, please/ Temper my hatred with peace/ Weave my disgust into fame/ And watch how fast they run to the flame."

She spits those last words out, laying out a Machiavellian revenge plot that neatly marks a line between one feminist generation and another -- one at once more bitter and more willing to use the traditional tools of womanhood to get her own back.

It worked.

Guyville came out at the time of the "fuck-me feminism" heralded by Esquire and Playboy, but made it into a fuck-you, too. As she later sang, Phair came off as "cool, tall, vulnerable and luscious" all at once, with a potent and unique songwriting voice that didn't hide its quirks behind any consistent girl-power pose but insisted on its right to mercurial switches, moving from the high abstract to the fleshy and vulgar in the space of a sigh. It was a one-album mini-revolution that should have changed rock songwriting more than it did.

But that was what she did culturally. What she did commercially was not much -- lots for an indie artist (everybody I knew had that album) but little by music-biz standards. That, of course, is what her latest album, titled just Liz Phair, was calculated to correct: Working with producers like the Matrix and Michael Penn, the disc sees her practising up her moves, tempering her hatred with sweetened-up radio hooks and trying to weave her divorced-mom disgust into fame.

For awhile the new scheme looked to have flopped, with sales of Liz Phair (henceforth LP) sluggish -- though Liz has said that's a fine outcome too: In that version of the plan, LP is a sacrifice fly to get her dropped from Capitol so she can go back to indieville. This week, though, first single "Why Can't I" is actually at its highest chart position - No. 41 on Billboard - since the disc was released in June. So who knows how it'll turn out?

What we do know is that LP sparked one of the bloodiest critical donnybrooks in years. Critics gave it moronic ratings like "0.0," and there was a notorious contretemps in The New York Times (Meghan O'Rourke called LP "career suicide" and Phair wrote back in a parable about Chicken Little seeing the sky falling where there was only a gentle summer rain). Fans lashed back at Phair's betrayal with personal fury in a million chat rooms.

Phair's all-ages show at the Guvernment last night made her critics look as silly as they deserve. Sure, all ages here seemed mostly to mean all ages between 25 and 40, with a handful of tweenies running around in the background, but the set list was calibrated perfectly to illustrate the continuities between the old work and the new. Phair looked cooler and more luscious than ever in a monogrammed sleeveless T-shirt and grey-black-striped skirt and vulnerably charming as she made modest chit-chat between songs.

Someone yelled out "You're the hottest ever!" and she demurred about how lame it was that all she could think of to say was, "Gosh, thanks." She joked about crashing the Bar Mitzvah in the next room. She played and sang with much more confidence and strength than she used to, though she still faltered or went flat from time to time. She was using a clip-on mic, which is too bad: She wasn't moving around much, and could have used the mic stand as a dramatic prop. Her four-man band was unobtrusive and efficient, with especially good work from the organist, though Phair hardly acknowledged and didn't introduce them.

My single greatest complaint about the new material is that it's centred around various "you" figures while Phair's best work has been her most self-centred -- she's got one of the best "I"-dentities in rock. Though she always adds subtle undercutting twists, LP falls too much into the twin modes of turn-of-the-21st radio: Either boast or blame. What is it about the radio speaker that makes the accusatory mood so appealing?

But Phair has been up-front: She was under pressure from both her label and herself to come up with hits, but stuck to the rule that she wouldn't sing anything that didn't sound like herself. That's true, except that often it's far from her most intriguing self. But then there's "Little Digger" -- about bringing a new lover home to meet her son -- or "Why Can't I," which despite its overdone chorus is a sharp snapshot of the scary thrill of a new affair after a breakup, the "inevitable" risk of that time when you "haven't fucked yet" but you're "already wet and... gonna go swimming."

I wouldn't have predicted just how comfortably such songs fell in beside opener "Mesmerizing" (from Guyville) or late-nineties songs like "Polyesther Bride" and "Jealousy." (Which by the way kicks the ass of any song on that subject that wasn't written by a pre-war bluesman. What has John Lennon's "Jealous Guy," for all its sweet apologetics, got on lines like, "I can't believe you had a life before me/ I can't believe they let you run around free/ Putting your body wherever it seemed like a good idea"? They're sentiments millions have felt and nobody's ever set to music before, a good working definition of great songwriting.)

It all raised the question of what exactly an artist owes her audience. And after "Divorce Song," which isn't just my favourite Phair song but one of my favourite songs period, I decided the answer for now was, Nothing. She gave me that song, and I can't wait out her attempt to build a more sustainable career? Ridiculous.

Of course I hope that after this she gets sprung again from the prison of verse-verse-chorus structure, which crimps the unpredictability that's her best songwriting quality. But I think of it less as a betrayal than as a friend going through a phase. You might not totally understand, but you have faith that they're doing what they need to do, and you'll hang back and wait to see where it leads. Otherwise you're just that guy yelling "Judas!" at Bob Dylan in 1966, and who wants to be that guy?

It's partly the intimacy of her writing that makes fans so propietary over her. Partly there is an unwillingness to let a woman artist be as inconsistent, fallible and absurd at times as a man. (Compare the way she's treated to, say, Michael Stipe's long leash.) There's also resentment that she's now a middle-aged, upper-middle-class single mom who still looks like a movie star and sings about how lust plays a major, complex part in her life. Her explicit lines -- this set makes me realize how astonishingly many of them there are -- have so much more punch than Peaches can dream of. (And the Avril comparisons are not only superficial; they flatter Lavigne more than they damn Phair.)

Then there's the perennial devotee's demand that she reliably serve our needs and not fuck up, which is an expectation she's never once encouraged or fulfilled before. The degree to which the LP album is full of wrong moves -- and I don't deny it is -- is the degree to which it is in fact perfectly in character.

I ran into friends after the show who said that though they too had been charmed and delighted by the whole concert, they thought this was the last we'd ever hear of Liz Phair: She's not going to be a star, and she's blown her street cred, so where is there left to go? I don't have an answer to that, and probably Phair doesn't either, yet. But after last night, I'd bet she'll come up with one no one is expecting. Then watch how fast we'll run back to the flame.

SET LIST
Mesmerizing (from Exile in Guyville)
Johnny Feelgood (from whitechocolatespaceegg)
6'1" (EiG)
Polyesther Bride (wcse)
Rock Me (LP)
Divorce Song (EiG)
Friend of Mine (one of the few LP tunes in this concert that's better on the record; it was kind of washed out by the Guvernment's middling sound mix)
Perfect World (wcse)
Flower (Guyville's classic "blowjob queen" track, arranged nicely to build up in volume and density as a rock song with this band)
Favorite (one of the few LP songs that merits the vituperation)
Help Me Mary (EiG, big Rolling Thunder sound)
Stratford-on-Guy (EiG, solo)
Extraordinary (actually follows nicely, though I don't like this LP song, except the bit where she sings in falsetto)
Jealousy (from Whipsmart, the record sadly under-represented tonight)
Never Said (a Guyville track I've always found weak)
Why Can't I (LP)
Supernova (Whipsmart)
ENCORE:
Red Light Fever (one of the best LP tracks, with a super-radio-friendly chorus but a strong domestic-detailed narrative)
HWC (or "Hot White Cum," a cute LP song, far from her best sex anthem but which I like for her justification of it as a utopian vision of what sex could be like when the gender war's taken out)
Fuck & Run (EiG, still perhaps her best song, though a bit rushed tonight)

Read More | Live Notes | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, November 16 at 7:04 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

COMMENTS

What a thoughtful review, Carl. It made me listen to Liz Phair again for the first time in a while.

Posted by Kevin C on January 14, 2004 11:16 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson