Saturday, December 27, 2003

Phair Thee Well

Liz Phair's most recent record, eponymously titled, has been in my car's CD changer for a couple of weeks now, and I'd been meaning to praise it here when I began to come across various outlets' year-end best-of lists.

In late June, shortly after it had been released, Liz Phair -- and Phair herself -- were carpet-bombed by Inquirer music critic Tom Moon, whose typically overwritten, inside-baseball piece called the CD "a spectacular career spinout, a car wreck in 14 torturously labored segments sure to leave devoted supporters wondering "What was she thinking?" Moon's review, a tsk-tsk screed castigating Phair for abandoning her indie roots, sounded like such a huge case of sour grapes that I was moved to write: "If the work is even half-decent, will any critics have the stones to say so?"

Well, yes. In an e-mail exchange in Slate last week, Sasha Frere-Jones, a New Yorker writer and musician, cited a couple of Liz Phair's songs in her year-end wrap-up, while Philadelphia music writer Keith Harris included the CD at the top of his "Best Albums" list. (Frere-Jones also pegged Phair as the year's No. 1 album on her own site.) Entertainment Weekly music critic Chris Willman may have gotten it best with his spot-on rationale for including Phair in his year-end Top 10:

The haters zeroed in on Phair's handful of sellout pop singles, failing to notice that these go-for-broke bids at stardom were grafted onto an otherwise deep enough, conventionally terrific singer-songwriter album. Actually, the sellout pop singles were pretty wonderful too.

Indeed, Phair, while too derivative to be considered a great record, is accomplished enough to warrant very good status. The stripped-down grit of Phair's previous CDs is gone, replaced by a big, noisy, pop-rock sound that serves to boost, but not obscure, her delightfully flat voice. The songs are catchy and fun and occasionally dirty -- this is Liz Phair, after all -- and, as always, uncommonly frank. Phair is a mid-30s, divorced mom who adores her son but still can get caught up in the sexual thrills of a new -- and younger -- guy, and who among us is pure enough to deny her that?

The Inky's Moon apparently thinks he is. Last Sunday's paper included his and fellow pop music critic Dan DeLuca's year-end wrap-ups, and Moon actually wrote this:

At times, it seemed like everything to do with music was about sex -- Kelis' "Milkshake" ditty, the Beyoncé lingerie-modeling videos, Liz Phair's failed attempt to tart herself up. That moment of swapped spit between Britney Spears and Madonna on MTV's Video Music Awards was the most-talked about thing on TV, at least until Paris Hilton came along.

Now, Moon is an outstanding writer, and his knowledge of the nuts and bolts of music -- not the industry, but things like notes and production and such -- places him in rarified air among music critics (Boats Against the Current recently had an interesting take on the difficulty in wrapping one's arms around music criticism), but makes him a must-read for purists only. I mean, my God, man, what the hell is he talking about, and what has he been listening to for the last four decades? Pop music has always been about sex. The Beatles didn't sing, "I Wanna Just Be Friends." In his own recap of 2003, DeLuca sang the praises of Amy Rigby's Til the Wheels Fall Off by observing smartly, "At bottom, pop music is and ever shall be about the pursuit of carnal pleasures."

Which reminds me: The next time you're talking to Phair, please pass along that there's an Xbox in the Shallow Center household.


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