Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Phair Ball

The critics and fans who lamented that having her new record produced by the Matrix would make Liz Phair sound like Avril Lavigne are right -- and wrong.

Phair's self-titled record hit stores yesterday, and I caught her new single, "Why Can't I," on WXPN this morning. I'll need to hear it a few additional times to render a more specific judgment, but off the top of my head it sounded like a bouncy little pop/rock number. Nice harmonies, jangly guitars, and all the rest. Though she's been styled a neo-punk savior, Lavigne sings pretty traditional pop songs about boys and love. Based on a first listen, "Why Can't I" falls into that category.

But what many seem to have forgotten is that while Lavigne brings to the studio a young, solid sound, Phair is nowhere near an accomplished singer. As much as the Matrix has buffed and polished her voice on "Why Can't I" -- and presumably the rest of the album -- it remains a little flat, just slightly off-key, and a hell of a lot more interesting than Lavigne's or almost anybody else's. Phair's songwriting -- brutally frank sexually and so unexpected from a young, preppy woman, at least back then -- helped to launch the grrrl-power movement, but it was her voice that gave the tunes their "Oh, my God, you have to listen to this!" allure. The world can and should pass on Avril sound-alikes; one is enough. But so long as Phair retains that distinctive imperfection -- the one thing that makes are stuff so compelling -- I'll happily plunk down 15 bucks at for the new work.

Phair has been all over the mainstream media of late, flirting with Entertainment Weekly's camera, inviting the New York Times along for a night out, and singing in front of Jay Leno's house. She knows she's going to get her ass kicked by those expecting a Liz Phair Record, and in recent profiles she's punched back, a little too defensively in my eyes. I mean, let's face facts -- she is selling out. She is trying to sell more records. But who am I to deny her that right? Phair more than established her credibility a decade ago. If she wants to make a buck or two along the way, more power to her.

Besides, it's not as if her move is unprecedented. Plenty of influential and talented acts have surveyed their careers and gone in new directions. U2, faced with the impossible task of topping The Joshua Tree, chose to go techno for a few albums before returning with a more traditional rock record. R.E.M. lost its mumbly Michael Stipe sound on Out of Time, then took a darker, more mature turn with the layered and deeply satisfying Automatic for the People, for my money the band's best work. On her final record, the stimulating Tropical Brainstorm, the late British popster Kirsty MacColl applied her considerable songwriting and vocal talents to Cuban rhythms. The result was a flawed but intriguing collection of songs that remain well worth listening to.

Many, many other examples can be found. Some of these moves were great, some not so much; many were interesting. Regardless, all these acts should be given credit for wanting to try something new. You may not have bought these records or enjoyed these songs, and that's okay, but at least offer a nod of appreciation to those who stretched themselves and challenged their fans with material that was beyond their usual fare.

Unfortunately for Phair, the direction she has chosen is not likely to win her much acclaim in newspapers and magazines. Critics' darlings typically don't offer much user-friendliness. Rare is the Norah Jones type who both wows music writers and sells a ton of records; more common are cult artists -- think the prolific but inaccessible Ani DiFranco, who can't belch without recording it and trying to sell it. A move toward a more pop sound is seen as diluting one's essential gifts in an unseemly effort to move more product. Never mind that in the right hands, pop music is one of our most joyous, enjoyable, and rewarding artistic efforts. It may not be deep, but it sure is fun. And what's wrong with a little fun once in a while?


Post a Comment

<< Home