Liz Phair – [Album]

Tuesday, 09 November 2010

Anyone familiar with Liz Phair's history in the music business knows that her relationship with record labels has been fairly tempestuous. The problems began following the release of Exile In Guyville; Phair has always been a reactionary songwriter and, after Guyville came out, the singer had to begin on a new learning curve which would include new requirements for conduct, a more demanding touring itinerary and schedule of public appearances. Phair has since said in interviews that, as a result of those things, many of the songs that developed during the first writing sessions for Whipsmart revolved around her reactions to her new station as pop culture's “blow-job queen” and the maintenance it required. Matador (Phair's first label) listened to the songs the singer sent them for a follow-up and summarily sent her back to the drawing board to try again; because the songs often dealt with her post-Guyville world (according to the singer) and her discoveries at what being in the music industry meant, the label didn't feel that audiences would be able to relate with them. Phair dutifully began writing again and, while she'd later admit that the process was frustrating, the songs that would eventually come to populate Whipsmart satisfied fans – if not the singer herself. Time passed and Phair eventually re-invented herself as a bonafide pop star with her self-titled album, but her problems persisted with EMI – her home after Matador – and she only did two albums for that label before moving on to ATO. When history began repeating again with ATO, Phair decided she'd had enough. As the singer said in a recent press release, the songs on Funstyle successfully got her released from both her record contract and her management deal, so she has elected to self-release the album to make the point that she's never going to back down again.

Some critics will say that Funstyle is thematically and stylistically scattered, and that's true. Some will (somehow) come to the conclusion that the album represents a return to the independent stance that Liz Phair once struck on the Girlysound tapes and/or Exile In Guyville. There is some validity to that too – if only on a superficial level – but what Funstyle really represents in the context of Liz Phair's recorded output is far more basic and personal than that; it's the first record the singer has done in years that appears exactly as she wants it. The subjects addressed are those of her choosing, the styles tried are the ones she wanted to use and it's somehow more direct to that spirit of independence.

So what's an artist to do with that kind of freedom? First and foremost, Phair exercises her right to finally speak her mind and bookends the album's run-time with “Smoke” and “U Hate It” – two sound collages that take a deep and wide strip out of record company executives and their practices by stringing a series of double-talking and occasionally self-congratulatory dialogues together into a form that is equal parts satire and biting criticism. Granted, the lyrics aren't always the cleanest, most savory rhymes (how many people cringe when they hear the “Uh oh – I think I'm a genius/Uh oh – you're being a pen-i-us” couplet? The “Colada that is” resolution doesn't help either), but the point in the cases of both tracks is to throw a bit of weight around, say “fuck you” to a couple of record labels and do it without pulling any punches; which both tracks do.

In between those ends, Phair covers a lot of bases; some to prove she can and some because she knows there are fans who would scream if they were totally absent. The Whip-ped, Exile-d and time-honored songstress returns for “You Should Know Me,” “And He Slayed Her” and “Oh Bangladesh” which all play pretty well but are the gimme songs for fans who have waited for something even sort of comparable to Guyville for eighteen years now. Those tracks fare well, but the first surprise comes when “Miss September” and “Satisfied” veer reasonably close to the “second” career as a Top 40-identified soundtrack pop star that Phair enjoyed with her self-titled album and Somebody's Miracle; placed together as they are here, the two "career images" (pop tart and indie songstress) prove to play pretty well together. That lot of songs is worth the price of admission alone, but the tracks to really pay attention to on Funstyle are those where Phair goes way out of her established comfort zone and exorcises some new muses and ideas without a safety net in the name of creative freedom. Some of those steps out fit surprisingly well and some really don't; the pseudo pastiche R&B of “Smoke” isn't bad from a novelty standpoint and the tight, swaggering and confrontational uptown soul of “My My” is shockingly strong for Phair, but “Bollywood” – where the singer tries rapping out an MIA designer knock-off – is about fifteen yards too far out of everyone's comfort zone. Further still is “Beat Is Up,” which sounds like Paula Abdul trying to instigate a renaissance of her “Straight Up” heyday. "Beat Is Up" and "Bollywood" are a touch obtuse but do work, in their own way, with the former, stronger ones that appear here, if only because they still fit with the “throw everything against a wall to see what sticks” vibe of Funstyle and – hey – the singer was brave enough to try them and that's admirable in its' own right. The overall impression left in the end is that Phair is getting used to the idea of unencumbered freedom so, while there are some missteps, they're almost expected as the singer learns to walk on her own.

Alright, so let's cover the obvious questions that will likely nag anything the singer releases until the end of her career; even eighteen years after everyone woke up from the single greatest critical wet dream in alternative rock history (a.k.a. Exile In Guyville's release). No, Funstyle is not Exile In Guyville part 2. Yes, there are some confounding, uneasy moments on Funstyle but even those make for interesting listening because, at every turn through the record, there is a justified clip to the singer's phrasing and a confidence in her performance even when it seems very likely that she's headed for a comedic wall. Simply said, Funstyle is Liz Phair's first next step; and it's awfully good to hear.


Liz Phair – "Oh, Bangladesh" – Funstyle

Liz Phair – "Miss September" – Funstyle

Further Reading:
"The Layers Of Liz Phair" interview on Ground Control.

Funstyle is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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