Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Aloha, Ms. Phair

Happy 40th birthday to Elizabeth Clark Phair, greatest female songwriter alive!

Born in New Haven, Connecticut on April 17, 1967, Phair has confounded, frustrated and evaded critics - and even fans - at seemingly every turn, like few rock stars in history. The tension, it seems to me, is between what everyone wanted Liz Phair to be, and what Liz Phair wants to be. What Phair wants to be is slippery. To start with, she wanted to be a visual artist...

"In which a girl-rock shooting star seeks recognition as nothing more but nothing less than the imaginative, eccentric singer-songwriter she always was." -Robert Christgau on Liz Phair

After art school, Phair sold her drawings in Chicago, and sat around in her bedroom at her parents' house with a 4-track and a guitar. And when she came out of the bedroom, she had two cassettes full of the most amazing singer-songwriter slack-rock the world ever heard (or was it three?!), ironic-cute labeled "Girlysound". And on some level, you must know this has all the marks of a Pop Music Myth, the Legend of Girlysound 1991, Phair descending from the Gen X Sinai of her childhood bedroom bearing the two tablets of Girlysound cassettes, and with the 1993 release of Exile in Guyville spontaneously becoming Voice of a Generation. That generation, however, is notoriously cynical, sarcastic and disenchanted, and tends to implode its own myths. Witness Mr. Kurt Cobain.

Girlysound and Guyville got a lot of attention for Phair's frank language, disgruntled songs about boys, and supposed reconfiguration of Exile on Main St., and this is the first critical misstep: everyone was pointing at the obvious elements of the Phair Mystique. The disappointment and backlash began with 1994's Whip-Smart, which only contained a smattering of f-words, and deepened in a four year absence before '98's whitechocolatespaceegg. Phair's fall from grace is in part a story critial misunderstanding and resentment, and in part her own stubborn refusal to set things straight.

We might have heeded the lyrics of "Strange Loop" in '93, when Phair sang "The fire you like so much in me/ Is the mark of someone adamantly free": that's a stated promise to confound expectations. In truth there are only a handful of Guyville songs about sex, only a few too graphic to play on the radio. "Fuck and Run", and "Flower", and that's it for the swearing and body-part talk. The shining moments are about looking out airplane windows ("Stratford-On-Guy"), fighting with your husband about a cigarette lighter on a crappy road trip ("Divorce Song") and the exasperation of living with immature roommates ("Help Me, Mary"). There are gender politics inherent in all these topics, but Phair's lyrics are weary, her nouns concrete and grungy, and stories mundane; far more effort is expended on the poetry of the everyday than on being provocative. That's the secret. Liz Phair finds the funny side of unnameable bad feelings, and glimmer of sad beauty in the completely boring, in precise observation of moments others do not bother to observe. Because that's where life is, most of the time.

She finds the lost soul of would-be macho "Soap Star Joe" as he sits in his car at night staring into the comforting green-and-white dashboard display. A lot of whitechocolatespaceegg, is given over to describing people with headaches, and characters finding the meaning of life while smoking and mowing the lawn. In "Alice Springs", a flashy lightshow display across the heavens turns out to be nothing but "a carpeting store on opening day". A brief fantasia in "Ride", in which Phair contemplates her rotting corpse levitating and ascending on a cloud of flies is, ultimately, just about coming home drunk and falling in bed with your head spinning.

And she constantly sings off key in her naturally low, deadpan alto.
And often she does not tune her instruments.
It's all very catchy and tuneful, and universal in concern... and utterly unsuited for pop radio. No apologies to those who wanted Phair to be a pretty girl with a dirty mouth who struck a constant defiant pose in the press. You have Courtney Love for that, I guess. Liz Phair, on the other hand, too paralyzed by stage fright to even enjoy performing.

Greetings from the Mt. Rushmore of Slacker Lust

Something bad happened in 2003, and I don't know if a musician has ever broken my heart so badly. Liz Phair, a self-titled, inexcusable and ridiculous bid for Avril Lavigne pop stardom... just sort of happened. I cannot doubt Phair's sincerity when she said insisted the record was born of a genuine love for teen pop music, and every song is drenched in naked confession of equal measure to it's overproduced gloss. In a shocking moment as embarrassing as it is tragic and self-aware, she sings to a barely-legal paramour "Your record collection don't exist/ You don't even know who Liz Phair is." Steve Albini, uber-engineer-producer, wrote to the Chicago Reader in 1993, and called Phair "more talked about than heard, a persona completely unrooted in substance, and a fucking chore to listen to". I'm sure he felt vindicated by Liz Phair. Did we lose Liz Phair? Should we have bought a lot more copies of whitechocolatespaceegg so she wouldn't have to sell-out to feed her son? Did she insist on participating in her own crucifixion? Suddenly I felt like I didn't even know who Liz Phair is.

Phair dropped the Top 40 production team The Matrix for the 2005 follow-up Somebody's Miracle, which was encouraging. The songwriting was not exactly a return to form, simply boring, without the gift for locating the fascinating in the boring. And around this time, something else happened. First-generation Girlysound tapes were unearthed. A scrapped set of studio recordings for whitechocolatespaceegg began circulating. Rejected demos for Liz Phair popped up on file-trading networks, more solid songs than anything on the finished record. A miracle indeed, the Japanese edition of Somebody's Miracle contained a rave-up new recording of the Girlysound song "Can't Get Out of What I'm Into": "It's a steady job/ & it's the only thing that makes me money/ & it gives me something to laugh about/ 'Cause my real life ain't fuckin funny."

Revisiting that song, at this time, in this context, reminded me who Liz Phair is. I don't know if we ended up here by design or accident, or Phair being a stubborn contrarian. Has she been self-sabotaging for a reason? As if to confirm she knows she's been out of sorts, "Can't Get Out of What I'm Into" ends with a bellow and moan, "O Lord! Why have you forsaken me?!". The performance sounds more irritated than despairing.

Phair has been secretly recording material as strong as Guyville, but not putting it on albums. Those demos were leaked on purpose, and it is rumored, at Phair's own off-the-record request. She was hiding the good stuff during this period when real life wasn't funny. Those what failed to make spaceegg include some of the most beautiful songs Phair has written. In "Stuck on an Island", teenage Phair, strung out on coke, tries to fix her dad's totaled car with a rake before she passes out at 7 AM. In "White Bird of Texas", an emissary from the afterlife appears as an albino hawk and sweeps up her uncle while he's talking on the phone. "White Bird" is my favorite Liz Phair song, impossibly catchy, written just out of her own singing range on both ends, and a statement on mortality that is at once frightening, banal, and wise. To hear it you need to buy the Japanese "Polyester Bride" single, which is a hell of a place to stash your best song.

None of this has anything to do with film. Phair took roles in the indie comedies Cherish (2002) and Seeing Other People (2004, though her role is reportedly barely even a cameo), and made one foray into filmmaking, directing music video for "Supernova", an ecstatic ode to cute boys and lead single from Whip-Smart. She's dressed up as a ghost in it. I could not locate a YouTube clip for analysis, so instead...

Photographer and filmmaker Rodney Ascher directed the wistful and dirty/pretty video below, for the 2005 song "Down". It is the most clear-eyed, aching music Phair has written in years, a breakup (or not?) song as mature as they come, and it is, of course, a completely unreleased track. Or maybe Phair fans will be predisposed to connect with a song about feeling ashamed because of someone else's disappointing behavior. Also: contains more of L.A.'s Chinatown than Chinatown!

Hey, did you hear this crummy bootleg recording of these great Liz Phair songs?!... Wait, what year is this?


The Shamus said...

Greatest female "rock" songwriter alive? C'mon. Or does the rock qualifier exclude Joni Mitchell?

Chris Stangl said...

Greatest! The only qualifiers are "female" and "alive".

"Great" is a fairly empty superlative, so I suppose I'm using it interchangeably with "my favorite", more than in the sense of "most influential/ powerful/ significant." J-Mitch is more important, and better maintains her cred. I guess I just like rock and roll more than folk and jazz.

Now Beatles people can like Elvis. And Elvis people can like the Beatles. But nobody likes them both equally... I'm Elvis people.

Jordan said...

Hey Chris, check out Brooklyn-based Cynthia Hopkins and her band Gloria Deluxe. You may like her a lot!

I think you'd like songs of hers like "Down Among the Dead Men" , "The Little Man's Mournful Cry" , "Cover Me With Your Darkness"

She's very brilliant, scary, beautiful...and catchy!