Woah! Liz Phair has learned to sing! Back in 1993, Liz first charmed the world into Phair-Phandom with her honestly edgy debut, Exile in Guyville, perhaps the most daring declaration of heterosexual femininity 90s music had witnessed up to that point (and maybe still). With that first album, Liz Phair became a hero for the real girls who sung with flat voice and full heart. Sure, she was still way better-looking than all of us, but we could forgive her that for the honesty of songs like “Fuck and Run,” and “Mesmerizing.” These were the anthems American girls dared not admit were inside until Liz found the words for us. Her two subsequent and noteworthy follow-ups, Whipsmart (the single, “SuperNova” generated a decent amount of radio airplay) and Whitechocolatespaceegg both earned some critical praise. But now, with her eponymous fourth album, Liz Phair [Capitol Records], Liz has clearly grown up and smoothed over any existing rough spots. And the problem for this reviewer is trying to decide if that’s a good or bad thing.
In the new album, the daring lyrics are still there, even if the gritty, occasionally flat voice and acoustic guitar is not. Songs like “H.W.C.” (Hot White Come) may even out-naughty all your favorite Phair songs from Yesteryear, but this song and most of the others are (perhaps appropriately) pumped up with electronics and effects. Songs like “Take A Look” and “My Bionic Eyes” hint at the old power and frank feeling of older days, but the songs on Liz Phair are unquestionably polished, pretty, glossy pop gems with snappy guitar bridges, structure, and the big production of stars like Matthew Sweet and Aimee Mann. And that’s not really a big surprise, considering that Mann’s husband and musical partner, Michael Penn, was a co-producer, along with R. Walt Vincent (Pete Yorn) and Phair herself. She’s also got some heavy musical contributors on this disc: Dr. Dre and Wendy Melvoin (Prince and the Revolution) on bass, Matt Chamberlin on drums, and Pete Yorn, adding drums and guitar to “H.W.C.”
Liz Phair may be one of those albums that’s a huge success because the lyrics sneak by the listener, with gorgeous layers of sound, catchy, memorable tunes (just try to walk away from “Red Light Fever” without humming it)—all tied up in a gloriously palatable radio-friendly package. I don’t know about you, but a hell of a lot’s happened to me over the last decade, and I’ve changed a great deal from 1993. Is it fair for me to want to pen Liz Phair into a sound that’s stuck in my past, but means so much to me? Do I want to allow Liz to be a grown-up with me? I’m still trying to decide.
In stores June 24th. Watch for Liz to tour for this album with the Flaming Lips.