Liz Phair visits Portland's Roseland
the spoils of sex
the free ticket, I'd have never gone to Liz Phair's show in Portland
It's all Phair: extending her audience and heading into a
second decade. ["Liz Phair," by Mary
That's because in 1994, Phair's Minneapolis show
had been as unsatisfying as its reputation, while her recent CD
is largely disappointing.
But although expectations were low, there was still
In 1993, Phair had hit the scene like a savior.
Her smart, scruffy debut, Exile in Guyville, was a tuneful,
sexy manifesto filled with insightful songs and serious doses
of humor, pathos and pith.
It was as though the planets had aligned to reveal
a lo-fi dream come true conversational storylines, mature
themes, surprising punch lines, cascading melodies and a salacious
streak at least six to eight inches long.
And it didn't hurt that Phair's album was touted
as a point-by-point answer to Exile on Main Street, the
Rolling Stones' 18-song opus from 1972. Still, Phair's next two
albums were considerably less satisfying than the first and her
onstage reputation remained iffy at best.
But Exile in Guyville had been almost too
damn good. And by her mid-20s, Phair had already produced the
musical equivalent of The Great American Novel.
Exile in Guyville: the 1993 debut.
Flash forward 10 years to last month's Roseland
show, then examine Phair's fourth album, Liz Phair.
Clearly, something has changed.
A mid-30s Phair remains very attractive (and seems
to find time for the gym). She fronts a sharp, tough-sounding
band and still plays electric guitar (but sings through a receptionist's
headset, rather than stepping up to a mic). And though her onstage
persona is much more refined, Phair favors singing in her lower
registers, which doesn't cut very well through the mix. Still,
the upper end of her voice sounds fuller and far more assured
than 10 years prior.
Mostly, though, she seems to enjoy herself. And
the Roseland show got off to a promising start with "Flower,"
one of the more sexually charged musical monologues on Guyville.
Overall, the show rocked.
But all these things are beside the point. Because
what's really changed is that with the release of the new
album, Phair has been accused of sin of sins!
It's probably true.
Liz Phair: the 2003 incarnation.
The much-maligned new recording is not especially
distinctive. It's as if she's writing clever headlines instead
of telling the adventuresome stories of old. The disc's sheen
(several songs are in collaboration with Avril Lavigne's people)
is flawless to a fault and sounds too much like anything and everything
on cookie-cutter radio stations across the land.
On the whole the album is not unlistenable, but
it's also a crass, in-your-face affair with lyrics to clearly
suggest that Phair still thinks often of sex. Yet where all the
dirty talk used to be part of engaging storylines, now the dirty
talk is almost all.
And while she's managed to propel herself into a
second decade in show business no small accomplishment
she may never again capture lightning in a bottle. Nevertheless,
reasonably impressive sales from the recent disc seem to ensure
she'll get a crack at making another.
Phair claims to be unashamed. Trying to expand her
audience is the string that runs through recent interviews. Which
apparently means she's trying to feed the family and pay the rent
by titillating young listeners. Expenses, as they say, always
rise to meet income.
Last month in Portland, the filled-up all-ages Roseland
show drew a significant proportion of geezers mid-30-somethings
and beyond. And it was equally refreshing to see so many enthusiastic
Portland youngsters mouthing the words to all the Exile in
Guyville songs sprinkled liberally throughout the set.
But it was when Phair whipped out the final encore,
her notorious new one about the dermatological benefits of certain
sexual fluids, that the younger concertgoers got giddiest of all.
It was also when the night started to feel like
a comic-book curiosity instead of the work of a writer capable
of rapture at the big-league level.
Even so, it was an unexpectedly enjoyable evening
for an exceedingly diverse crowd.
Not long after the show, I had a three-way conversation
with a pair of music-loving 40-something friends where one mentioned
that live-venue crowds are almost invariably on the youngish side
these days. Except, the other friend joked, for Neil Diamond's
shows. Well, I offered, you can add Liz Phair to that list.
Maybe it's not the list Phair is aiming for, but
it probably means mission accomplished. Maybe she'll finish upping
the fan base, get her finances in order, then take a serious crack
at that next wide-open canvas.
Why not hold out hope? Well into a second decade,
Exile in Guyville still sounds great and there are good things
about all three other albums including the latest, which
is not without its insights and charms.
In fact, a line from "Red Light Fever"
could serve both to answer critics and sum up a chronic problem
in a finger-pointing world.
"You're always listening to yourself,"
she sings. "You're always thinking ... you're always thinking
... you know what everybody else should do with their lives."
For anyone entranced by her beginnings, Phair's
future is more deserving of anticipation than scorn.
Sex always sells that's never in doubt. Infinitely
more interesting will be seeing how someone so imminently qualified
chooses to harness the spoils.