Liz Phair attempts “something a little more Chicago”

Liz Phair - FunstyleLiz PhairFunstyle (ATO?)

I was at a party on Saturday night, and during a quiet moment alone I happened to check my Twitter (I know, I know) to see that Maura Johnston had retweeted something from somebody saying that there was a new Liz Phair album available at I downloaded it the next day and quickly realized that she is smoking assloads of weed again. Aloha, Ms. Phair.

Crazy timing, since just last week I had been inspired into a Liz Phair YouTube fit after reading Michaelangelo Matos’ Flavorwire piece about albums overlooked by the National Recording Registry. He included the video for “Never Said” while nominating Exile in Guyville. I had never realized it was shot at the Garfield Park Conservatory here in Chicago, a place I hadn’t visited until recently. I spent the next hour or so watching grainy 90s videos and wallowing in nostalgia. Three days later, she releases a new album.

I’ve listened to Funstyle several times now, and overall I like it. Without a doubt, there’s way too much goofy shit on there, but even a lot of that has charming or amusing moments. It’s clearly more a collection of songs than an album of cohesive material, but even so, it tells a story. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it a concept album, but since I’m an egocentric maniac, I like to believe she’s writing directly to me and making up for spurning me so ruthlessly during the Matrix era when she claimed that she’d always been more attracted to ripped macho guys than to dorky dudes in thick-framed glass. Crushing.

I liked about half of 2003’s Liz Phair, but I couldn’t even make it all the way through 2005’s Somebody’s Miracle. But now, she’s obviously trying to win me back. And I think she’s going to succeed. Here’s how:

1. “Smoke” – The first sounds we hear on Funstyle are a slinky electronic bassline and a programmed drum machine shuffle. Then we hear what sounds like Liz warming up her voice with a double-tracked falsetto exercise that might be intended to sound funky. A male voice casually asks, “Hey Liz, what’s in the box?” as a car horn honks outside. “It’s my little voice of self-doubt.” A different man says with a corporate/Los Angeles/DJ affectation, “Liz, ATO won’t ever put this out. You won’t be washing dishes in this town… It’s career suicide,” etc. Liz’s response? A huge gunshot blast and then the chorus, “Let’s smoke on that, let’s smoke on that” over a genuinely funky electric guitar and electric piano sample. Later, after a dog representing a label executive barks some advice, Liz replies, “No, no, I mean, Jon Brion’s really cool…I just think we should do something a little more Chicago.” Right there. She got me. And probably all of the other Midwestern fans who felt personally betrayed when she moved to the most despicable city in the United States. I don’t even care that nothing about this song feels in any way Chicago; I just like that she’s throwing us a bone.

2. “Bollywood” – This song is just ridiculous. Liz raps. About her new career composing television scores for shows like “90210.” This is far weirder and less commercial than anything on Exile. I wouldn’t exactly call it good, but it’s strange and contains several memorable lines (“Oh shit, you’re twenty years older / Still hot but getting a lot colder”). And again, lyrically she’s reaching out to us, explaining to us why she’s made some of her career decisions (“I got a kid to feed, why don’t you make a deal with me?”) and ends it with a murder fantasy about killing record executives.

3. “You Should Know Me” – “Not supposed to talk about it / analyze it…” Finally, a real Liz Phair song. And a good one. And she comes right out and asks us to just listen and enjoy. Stop being so uptight, cut her some slack, and loosen up. It’s only rock and roll. Musically, it’s a simple acoustic-based song with flourishes of weird synth squawks. It gradually builds up with electric guitar and drums that wouldn’t sound out of place on Elliott Smith’s later stuff. This is a good song.

4. “Miss September” – This is a sappy love song. The second verse is pretty good (“They’ve got you in ropes and they’re prodding you all night / The lion must roar if the crowd’s gonna fill up the stands”), but the chorus sounds like it could’ve been written by Kara DioGuardi. Pleasant enough, I guess, but it’s slick L.A. pap. This just makes me wish she’d start playing her own guitar again. Fuck those horrid long-haired professionals she’s obviously still surrounding herself with.

5. “My My” – Liz gets soul. I like it. Of course, I’ve got a soft spot for Kelly Clarkson. You’ll probably hate it; it sounds like a Lenny Kravitz co-write. And that’s the really annoying part about her releasing this like she did. No press release, no liner notes, no information whatsoever. Who produced it? Who paid for it? That’s also the great part: we have to actually listen to it with nothing to go on other than the terrible “Print Screen” cover art and the music itself. Dumping it out there on a Saturday may be more than a gimmick after all. She wants us to actually listen to it. I’m still not convinced that this isn’t a clever marketing ploy dreamed up by the honchos at ATO Records, who signed her in 2008 and claimed to have a new studio album ready that fall. Regardless, it’s interesting. And this is a jam.

6. “Oh, Bangladesh” – This is another good song. Multi-tracked vocals, big drum sound, persistent piano, cool lyrics, Stonesy guitar. “Why do you treat me so good / With all the mess that I’m in?” Well, Liz, it’s because of songs like this.

7. “Bang! Bang!” – This sounds a lot weirder than it really is. At its heart, it’s a mid-tempo simple piano song, but the ambient backdrop takes it farther out. “Let me put it all back / This runaway train is running out of track / No more tricks in the old trick sack / The minutes tick by ’til the watch face turns black.” Sucks getting older, doesn’t it?

8. “Beat Is Up” – Another goofy song. The only thing that redeems this is Phair’s dead-on North Shore soccer mom accent, which is hilarious. Someone should write a sitcom around this character. Oh wait, I forgot that’s the premise of every sitcom now. Interspersed with the soccer mom dialog are bits of Apu from the Simpsons sharing self-help nonsense.

9. “And He Slayed Her” – I like this one a lot, especially how the double-tracking of the vocals doesn’t line up perfectly. It’s obviously not touched up with Pro Tools. And that’s a good thing. If Funstyle had a few more songs like this and “Oh, Bangladesh” and ditched the goofy “novelty songs”, everybody would be talking about a return to form. Everybody, of course, except for all the people cynically complaining about how she was just attempting to appease the audience she abandoned…

10. “Satisfied” – Aw shit, more slick L.A. schlock. “It’s nice to take a detour sometimes.” Well, that pretty much sums up the philosophy of this album. It’s split pretty evenly between three types of songs: joke songs, slick pop songs, and old school Liz Phair songs. The question now is: which ones are the detours? And which ones represent the real Liz Phair? Is there a real Liz Phair anymore or has Los Angeles eradicated her personality like it does to everyone who lives there, stripping away every bit of individuality under the constant wash of hair dye, spray tan, and plastic surgery? I hate to come across as so regionalist, because I know that there are genuine, sincere people who live there, but Jesus Christ, why does everybody who moves there from the Midwest have to morph into a goddamn Melrose Place caricature? Amanda Woodward is not a fucking role model!

11. “U Hate It” – Oh boy, the album goes out with another goofy song. The set up: two record execs talk about how much they hate the new Liz track. The punchline: she wins an award and the execs take responsibility for its success. It has some funny bits, but it goes on way too long. She’s obviously trying to beat critics to the punch and deflate their arguments before they can make them. And I realize it’s supposed to be funny, and maybe she’s simultaneously poking fun at the boastful young “girl power” singers (Miley, Ke$ha, M.I.A., et al) as well as clueless music industry honchos, but it just seems embarrassing to even jokingly refer to oneself as a genius, while rhyming it with “You’re being a penius…colada that is.” The fact that an audible groan is heard after that line proves that she realizes it is awful. But come on. Is that really how she wants to go out on her first album in five years, her first since being unceremoniously dropped by Capitol? With a dumb joke, tween-humor lyrics, and a fantasy about winning a Grammy and proving that rich old businessmen are dopey? I don’t know.

So there it is: four silly trifles, three slick pop songs (one of which is pretty good and the other two are not completely horrible), and four good old fashioned Liz Phair songs like I want. It’s not a perfect album, but there’s enough good stuff on it that I’ll be paying attention to what she does next.

Liz Phair: iTunes, Amazon, Insound, wiki

23 thoughts on “Liz Phair attempts “something a little more Chicago””

  1. Thanks for doing the dirty work. Sounds like four good Liz Phair songs is worth the $5.99. Maybe I won’t even listen to the goofy ones; that way I can maintain the fantasy. And by the way why doesn’t anyone ever seem to mention Whitechocolatespaceegg? Maybe *I’m* goofy but I love that album a lot. Though, goofy title.

  2. You’re welcome. I’d say that $5.99 is a fair price for this, especially since you can opt to receive a lossless download.

    I’m also a big fan of whitechocolatespaceegg. Saw her on that tour. I still wonder what (if anything) would’ve been different had she released “Johnny Feelgood” as the single as opposed to “Polyester Bride.”

  3. Nice sleeve roll-up, Jake. Good job, as usual. From what you describe all that’s missing is her own version of “The Real Slim Shady”. (Will the real Liz Phair please stand up?)

    There is one thing I must take issue with: blaming “long-haired professionals” and the like for her monumental faux pas of the last few years is letting her off way too easy. She can imply all she wants that those of us who once followed her should not be “so uptight, cut her some slack, and loosen up” but until she makes musical amends she can’t expect that of us, IMHO. We’ll see…

    If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years of dating is that when a lady readily admits she’s a mess, it’s because she actually is a mess. So, one should take her at face value and run far, far away. Sure-fire remedy for heartbreak and disappointment, my friend.

  4. I noticed you attrib’ed the label for this release as ATO with a question mark. I just went to their website, and she is most definitely being listed as one of the “alumni” of the label. My guess is that she is in strictly self-released territory with this one, unless we end up hearing otherwise.

    I wonder if Jim Powers at Minty Fresh will sign her back again? That would be a radical 360-degree turn for her career…

  5. Sure, but I’m still not convinced it’s not a marketing gimmick to make it seem totally self-released (I mean, did you see her 1998 geocities-styled website?). They clearly had a two-album deal back in 2008 (the Exile reissue plus one more), so I’m not buying the idea that they’d just let her release this on her own.

    Plus, in “U Hate It” she thanks Dave Matthews (founder of ATO) and Sony (who owns RCA, of which ATO is a division). This might be ironic. Or maybe they rejected it and let her out of her contract after they heard it. But I’m still leaning toward thinking this is all a ruse.

  6. Update from

    You were never supposed to hear these songs. These songs lost me my management, my record deal and a lot of nights of sleep.

    Yes, I rapped one of them. Im as surprised as you are. But here is the thing you need to know about these songs and the ones coming next: These are all me. Love them, or hate them, but dont mistake them for anything other than an entirely personal, un-tethered-from-the-machine, free for all view of the world, refracted through my own crazy lens.

    This is my journey. Ill keep sending you postcards.



  7. Liz chats with fan site Mesmerizing and addresses some of our questions. Sounds like she’s definitely off ATO. (I am awaiting a response from the label for confirmation.)

    Ken: Did you play a lot instruments on the album?

    Liz: Yes, a ton. I’m the guitar and the bass on “And He Slayed Her” (Andy Slater-hahahaha) and “Oh Bangladesh”, “Miss September”, “You Should Know Me”, etc. One I’m particularly proud of is the chopped up keyboard riffs on “Beat Is Up”.

    Only surprise there is “Miss September.” She must be getting good! Or — if your glass is half-empty — conventional.

    Ken: Who was involved with the album? Were your writing partners “Doc” Dauer and Evan Frankfort participants? Who else?

    Liz: Evan and I did the Funstyle ones; Doc, Evan and I did “Satisfied”; and Dave Matthews did “And He Slayed Her”, “You Should Know Me”, and “Oh Bangladesh”. You can hear Dave’s gorgeous and lonesome guitar on those three. All songs on Funstyle represent great magical sessions of musical collaboration. I love my job.

    Interesting that she refers to the “Funstyle ones.” I assume she means the four songs that I refer to as the “goofy ones.” No surprise that “Satisfied” is written by committee with professionals.

    I’m a little shocked that Dave Matthews played on (co-wrote? produced?) my three favorite songs on the album. Who’d a-thunk!

  8. She should go play clubs with Evan Dando for all the relevance that she has anymore. Chopsticks, anyone?

  9. Jonathan, I saw The Lemonheads on the tour for the self-titled album and I sincerely doubt Phair’s new record or subsequent tour can match that album’s level of quality songwriting or the kick-ass performances on that tour.

  10. There are a ton of great songs on whitechocolatespaceegg, and quite a few on Liz Phair (“My Bionic Eyes” is one of my all-time fave Liz Phair songs).

  11. Isn’t it? Glad you like it. “As I got light as a feather they got stiff as a board.” Awesome line.

    Shortly after it was released I claimed I could compile a very good Liz Phair album out of the best tracks off Liz Phair combined with most of the comeandgetit EP she released for free download (with album purchase) at the same time. “Jeremy Engle” is one of those EP tracks and it’s my second favorite song from that era.

    She can still write and record really good songs. “You Should Know Me” and “And He Slayed Her” off this new one are really, really good. That’s what’s so frustrating about her. I know she’s got it in her, but she squanders her talent on silly trifles and schlocky pop.

    I don’t want her to be miserable like she claims she was back in the Exile days. I just want her to write non-jokey songs, record them with her quirky, unique guitar style, and release them.

    I’d love for her to abandon the mainstream music industry altogether, move back to Winnetka, and record great little songs on a Pro Tools rig in her basement. She could release them–like Funstyle–via Topspin and keep all the money. Put out an EP for $6 every couple of months…I’m sure she has enough fans that she could make a nice living, especially combined with occasional, selective touring.

    If she wants to hire me as a consultant, I’m available for meetings…

  12. Well I think you indirectly described exactly why I stopped paying her any attention years ago. Too many filler songs that really stunk and then out of nowhere comes a great one. I just got tired of searching for the good ones amidst the crap.

    I do love her multi-track vocal overdubs (or is it a mild phaser on her voice?) and always have. I think her voice and attitude that it conveys (on a track like ‘My Bionic Eyes’) are made for that studio effect and it doesn’t come off as cheesy.

    If you could sum it up, what the hell happened to her? Poor management? Too many handlers and lame producers? I really don’t know shit about her personal or professional life to really comment on anything except what I hear in the music which is hit or miss.

  13. Who knows? In 1996, Capitol Records bought half of Matador. I think this affected the recording and marketing of whitechocolatespaceegg (overall, it’s a pretty good album). Liz was by far Matador’s most “successful” artist (or at least potentially successful, ha ha), and I think Capitol probably pressured her to be more “commercial” so it could recoup some of its investment. (Whipsmart had made a splash in 1994 and then quickly fizzled, so I’m guessing there was a lot of self-doubt and second guessing when it came time to follow it up.)

    Around the same time, she got married and had a kid, which will certainly cut back on the amount of time you can dedicate to getting stoned and writing great songs.

    Then shortly after whitechocolatespaceegg gets released and fails to hit, Capitol dumps Matador, allowing it to keep all of its artists and catalog…except for Liz Phair. So Capitol–Andy Slater, specifically–spends the next several years convincing her that she’s a loser and a failure and that she needs to go the Avril Lavigne route or else she won’t be able to feed her family. Unless she follows his suggestions… She goes for it. And fails. And then releases a lame Sheryl Crow knockoff. And then Capitol dumps her.

    At that point she’s free to do whatever she wants. But she’s obviously been living in L.A. too long and no longer has any idea what’s actually cool or good anymore. So her new album is all over the place and ends up with a .333 batting average.

    But really, it all probably just comes back to the idea that even most great artists run out of steam after about 10 years of quality. Back in the day, that used to be plenty of time for a band to release several great albums. Now it seems that most bands release two or three albums in that time period. There are exceptions of course, but even the almighty Rolling Stones (Phair’s great inspiration) were only undeniably great from about 1965 to 1974.

  14. Thanks for the synopsis, Jake. I agree that the average is somewhere around ten years or so for great awe inspiring music to be made from a band or an artist to create once they hit the scene/big time. But Liz Phair aside, if we look at the exceptions to the rule you laid out, what made the exceptions keep going and continue to create legendary albums? I guess that begs another question as to who would qualify as an exception. I think even the exceptions crank out some pure crap in their on-going pursuit of their muse/art.

    I think the Stones hit their final stride with Mick Taylor. Is there a difference between a genuine artist and a good/great songwriter who runs out of steam due to the complexities of life that we all face? Yes. This topic has kind of morphed into a realization that even the best bands and the songwriters that blow our minds in our youth and hopefully occasionally in adulthood (whatever that is)are 100% human. Humans aren’t perfect. Let alone the way the business of music has changed.

    James Taylor – great songwriter who hit a stride and then it faded

    Paul Simon – ditto

    R.E.M – write your own opinion

    Weezer? – come on now

    You see my (our) point?

    Dylan and Neil Young are still out there carrying the torch to hopefully be picked up in this new and rapidly changing world.

    My guess is that real life got in the way of her ever reaching the potential that she had years ago.

  15. I dunno…for the most part, all the notable artists in rock music with significant longevity have a span of 3-5 consecutive albums that cement their legacy. And, as you pointed out Jake, back in the day, because of how the business was run or whatever, artists capitalized on this and released albums at a rapid pace. Just think: all of Hendrix’s output was recorded between 1967-1970. Yup, three years. And in that same length of time–without touring, of course–the Beatles’ discography, not counting Yellow Submarine, spans 5 studio albums from Sgt. Pepper’s to Let it Be. (One of them a double album, even.) Hell, Cream released 4 studio albums in 15 months! (Yeah, there’s some live tracks on there, but still…) In the three years it takes many contemporary artists to put together an album, artists of the past could build their legacies. What was going on? Pardon my ignorance, but I’m asking with all sincerity.

    It wasn’t just in the ’60s and early-to mid ’70s, tho: The Police made 5 studio albums in the 5 years they were a recording act; Van Halen’s “Diamond Dave era” consists of 6 albums in as many years. And while both of these acts toured their asses off, they were still able to release this much music anyway. How come?

    Were they super prolific or are more current artists beholden to different circumstances? Is it a different mindset? Big money slowed them down? Has the music by major artists gone the focus group/production by committee route? Why does it take so long? Weezer released “The Green Album” and Maladroit within 364 days of each other and that was a bigger deal than the music itself.

    Any ideas?

  16. Dude, the line from “Smoke” is not “Let’s smoke on that.”

    It is, much more to the point: “There – Smoke on that!”


  17. it sounds more like “Let’s smoke all night” to me.

    Interesting discussion. Old fan here who was aghast at the records Liz Phair put out post-Matador, stopped listening/caring altogether, and I think this new record is great. The joke songs are funny and the “real” songs range from kick-ass (Oh Bangladesh) to pleasant enough (You Should Know Me–the harmonies are what make this one real special). Not sure if it really IS a great record, or if it’s just that my goodwill has been revived because Liz Phair finally, finally put out a weird record again. I guess time will tell.

  18. All I know is that while this album is mostly a 3/5 for me, there is enough personality here to make up for the identity crisis which started from her self titled to Somebody’s Miracle. I mean, I thought there were good songs in those albums but none of them really sounded like Liz Phair. She sounded like Avril, Shania, Sheryl Crow, Lillix (LOL) but not Liz Phair. Funstyle gives me a little hope for her and I’m crazy about the goofy shit in the album. They’re better than the L.A. Pop Radio stuff. I love that she’s putting dialogues (She’s done it better with “Bars of The Bed”). It’s like her version of Kate Bush’s Waking The Witch or something but with more pot.

    I’m kinda worried about the next slew of songs she would be releasing. She said she worked on them with Jeff Trott who was Sheryl Crow’s collaborator but he did come up with Crow’s best music so whatever.

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