Liz Phair: Liz Phair (Capitol)

Let’s just say that the jaunty way dizzy Ms. Lizzie sings this number leaves no doubt that the girl is gettin’ some these days, probably good and plenty.

Liz Phair seems out to prove something with her new self-titled recording. The Chicago-bred singer’s significance in the music industry has waned in recent years: her last full-length release, 1998’s whitechocolatespaceegg, garnered little attention outside her regular fanbase (although it had some choice tunes), and her live shows earned a reputation for being erratic, with Phair’s openly acknowledged stage fright preventing her from truly rocking out and enjoying herself the way fellow rock babe Sheryl Crow, for example, usually does. Phair seemed to drift a long way from the “heady” days of her Exile in Guyville debut, which pricked up plenty of ears with its overtly sexual lyrics and stripped-down production, elements that made quite an impact when delivered by a well-scrubbed midwestern gal who looked like the prom queen at Anytown High School. After the end of the Lilith Fair thing, which Phair had ridden the fringes of, hard-workin’ fillies like Jewel milked one formula (wholesome pop balladeering with just a hint of flirtation), while Crow developed into a consummate rocker chick, and edgier, more self-contained female singer/songwriters like Cat Power, Ani DiFranco, and Lisa Germano garnered the attentions of the alternative press.

Phair seemed left out, partly by choice (she took time off to get married, move to the West Coast, and have a child) and partly by apparent writer’s block. So there’s a sense that she’s attempting to reestablish her artistic credentials with Liz Phair, her fourth full-length platter, and you feel the weight of expectation from the record’s first song, “Extraordinary,” a vigorous mid-tempo rocker. “I am extraordinary/If you’d ever get to know me,” Phair sings, fueling the daydreams of her male admirers, as she’s always done. But then she muddies the picture a bit by singing something about being an “everyday sane psycho.” Liz baby, are ya getting’ all paradoxical on us here, or what?

Liz Phair is primarily an album of good-natured, hook-oriented pop/rock (“Red Light Fever,” “Take a Look,” “Love/Hate,” and “Favorite”). In that last song, she compares a beau to her favorite underwear: “Take you for granted/But I’ll always know exactly where you are/Lost you once, you were hard to find/Got you back, you didn’t look like mine/Thought we were falling apart/But you make me feel so pretty/Like you did, like before…I’m slipping you on again tonight.” The song isn’t quite as sexy as it wants to be; it’s constructed like a Sheryl Crow tune, simply with a less subtle metaphor. It’s an okay song, I guess, not truly salacious or anything. For that, you’ll want to cue up Track 11, “H.W.C.,” which I won’t tempt the “delete” button of my editor by quoting here. Let’s just say that the jaunty way dizzy Ms. Lizzie sings this number leaves no doubt that the girl is gettin’ some these days, probably good and plenty.

Less eyebrow-raising winners here include “It’s Sweet,” which features pleasantly insistent percussion, an uncluttered arrangement, and one of Phair’s most relaxed, confident vocal performances; the cool, vaguely Beatles-ish “Firewalker”; and the very well-crafted “Friend of Mine,” in which Phair rises to the level of her peers and simply sings and plays her heart out. You truly get the sense that her emotions are invested here and that she’s happy to be making this sometimes newly sophisticated music again. And if she wants radio play, the indie rock–friendly “Rock Me” (about carrying on with a much younger guy) and the melodic vulnerability present in “Good Love Never Dies” could well do the trick; they’re both clean, commercial pop/rockers. “I can never relax/I’ve gotta keep it exciting/Make it attractive/Keep it alive/Keep you coming back/I’m already fighting to keep what I have,” Phair sings in the latter tune. She could be talking about a relationship or her music career; it works either way.

Phair is clearly trying her best to keep her fans “coming back” by offering a little of what they’ve come to expect, but also some more age-appropriate rock ’n’ roll craftsmanship. The problem is that she’s so intent on making a slick, commercial record here that she’s rubbed out the edge from some of her songs. Lapsing into blandness is not a good idea for a hot rocker chick, and it makes the bawdier moments a little embarrassing by contrast. The lo-fi aesthetic of her earlier work was more suited to some of this stuff, even though Phair has said recently she never liked the indie rock category she was put into. But evolving into an overproduced mainstream rocker doesn’t seem like the proper model of career smarts.

I still don’t think Phair is Grammy-bound anytime soon; her music is an acquired taste, and it’s missing a certain element of, oh, grace or something. But Liz Phair is more than just a transitional disc; it’s an already-made declaration of a new musical persona, with just a few traces of the old one left. And it’ll certainly provide Ms. Phair with a set of frisky new songs to kick it in concert with. But the indications are that this album is gonna sharply divide the fans, and there’s not that much about it that will bring newcomers aboard. The marketplace is saturated with rock chicks adhering to a formula of mid-tempo, cleanly produced pop rock, and that isn’t where Phair comes from. I’m all for artistic growth and all, but with a unique performer like Phair, this kind of stylistic shift (thematic, too, on most songs) is gonna seem jarring to her fans. I wouldn’t count her out yet, though: all the right ingredients are there. Time will tell if Liz Phair has the patience and determination to cook up something tasty again.

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