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 LizPhair.com. 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.