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Liz Phair visits Portland's Roseland
Harnessing the spoils of sex
by Mark Anderson

ithout the free ticket, I'd have never gone to Liz Phair's show in Portland last month.

It's all Phair: extending her audience and heading into a second decade. ["Liz Phair," by Mary Bergherr]

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 some hope.

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! – selling out.

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.

Whip-Smart, 1994.

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.

whitechocolatespaceegg, 1998.

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.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and see more tripewriter.

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