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Exile in Mainstream 

Can the songwriter's follow-up to the disastrous Liz Phair reconcile her altrock past with her pop-rock present?

Wednesday, Aug 17 2005
Boston, a city that exports a thousand academics and financial advisers for every one Matt Damon, does not have style. The few oases of chichi glamour jammed into downtown are plagued by rumpled white men in old Brooks Brothers shirts. This is a classic-rock town, a place where the only celebrities play for the Red Sox, so it doesn't take a celebrity spotter to notice Liz Phair gliding down Tremont Street, with her guitarist boyfriend, Dino Meneghin, on one arm and a dazzling gold purse on the other. On this drab street, she's a ray of Los Angeles sunshine.

Phair is in town to kick off her new tour, and we meet at the bar of her posh boutique hotel for our interview. She's on the road this summer in a stripped-down acoustic show that covers everything from her newest singles all the way back to Exile in Guyville, the 1993 altrock masterpiece that introduced her as a brash and cunning female rocker grinding the old macho canon under her shoe. But while Guyville made her famous, it also cast a shadow over the rest of her career. And so I imagine that after the scathing critical backlash against her last full-length -- 2003's Liz Phair, an unabashed leap for the Top 40 -- Phair might be cagey or defensive, perhaps ready to settle some scores.

Instead, she sounds totally happy, even a little New Age-y. She's excited about her career, her life on a major label, and her new album, Somebody's Miracle, due out in October and even more polished and accessible than the last one.

Of course, hearing the songwriter aim for the Top 40 again will come as less of a shock now that we've had two years to digest Liz Phair. That album's prefab pop won Phair scores of new listeners, but when her old fans heard it, they recoiled at the sight of their defiant altrock queen becoming everything they hated: a slick chart-bound pop star, who worked with the same songwriters and copped the same moves as Avril Lavigne. And when the same album also had a poignant ballad about Phair's son and two perky, graphic sexual numbers -- one that compared her man to a worn-out pair of panties, and one titled "Hot White Cum" -- it became not just her sellout moment, but her first official train wreck.

Or, at least, that was the conventional wisdom.

For her part, Phair is still surprised that fans took her attempt to mainstream herself so hard. "I'm not one of those muso-heads. My experience of music is tied up with the whole industry and the entertainment part of it all," she says. "I didn't think at this stage I was still supposed to be making indie music -- which, I just can't. It'd be fraudulent for me to try to be indie. My life is not indie. I think this time, I tried really hard to be Liz Phairian, for the most part."

Fair enough. But, at this point in her career, what exactly does it mean to be "Liz Phairian"?

Sitting at the hotel bar and catching her first meal of the day, a light scallop salad, Phair is swift to correct the misconception that she deliberately signed to a major. She ended up there, she explains, following a series of acquisitions, in which Matador sold itself first to Atlantic, then to Capitol Records. "Atlantic was the hardest," she says. "They were old school, like, 'Let the radio programmer feel you up.'" But Capitol was a good fit, especially after Phair moved to L.A. and tackled the label head-on. "I'm like, 'If I'm going to get a handle on this building, then I need to get in there, and I need to know who everybody is.' And it wasn't my manager taking me around doing this. I did it myself. I became proactive in my own career. By then I was comparable in age [to the staff at Capitol], and I thought, 'They don't own me, I actually have an entire building to help me do this thing.'"

And while that may mean a few compromises -- and some skimpy outfits on her album covers -- Phair's hands-on approach has ensured that at the very least she's the one pulling the strings. When I ask her if the label ever demands anything "unreasonable," she laughs and says, "I'm friends enough with everybody that they're like, 'All right: We're going to pimp you out, get ready for it.' But at least I know. I get the real deal."

"I'm resilient," she explains, "very resilient. I will work with whatever context you give me. I will adapt to whatever -- I will figure it out. It was like in high school, I went to a super-conservative preppy high school that was enormous, and by default of not going to class senior year I ended up going to Oberlin, which was a super-tiny, socially inverted college, where lesbians were the top of the food chain. And I just looked around and I'm like, 'My acid-washed jeans and Lady Di hair is not gonna work.' You adapt."

So far, she's adapted well to recording for a larger audience. As she describes it, "I'm reaching out so much more, looking for a connection. Whereas before I was almost hellbent on setting myself apart." Thanks to Phair's sunnier attitude, as well as some top-shelf production (by John Alagia, producer for John Mayer, and John Shanks of Sheryl Crow and Chris Isaak), Somebody's Miracle has a mature folk-rock sound that goes down easier than the lo-fi productions of her Matador discs, and as a bonus for moms with kids in the minivan, this time there's no cussing.

Though the album sounds more like adult alternative than soul, Phair actually planned it as a response to Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life; she only backed off when she didn't have the time or material to do a 21-song double record. (Was that the label's decision, or hers? "It was the best decision," she responds.) But Wonder still gave her a guiding principle: Like on Key of Life, there are painful songs -- on "Table for One," she sings about her brother's alcoholism -- and other songs that are candy-coated but still make room for frank, thoughtful lyrics.

On "Stars and Planets" ("That was my 'Sir Duke'"), she even recaps what she's learned from the industry. "There are some women that I toured with, and [I'm] trying to say [to them], 'It's not the glamour that makes you special. It's not all the hoopla. ... What's different about you is your ability to reveal your everydayness, your humanity.'

"So 'Stars and Planets' is about [how] we all shine. You" -- she points to me -- "have the same amount of great stuff in you that I do. He" -- the bartender -- "has the same amount of great stuff. Some people can give it. And that's what makes a real star, the people that can give it."

The next night at Boston's Paradise Rock Club, Phair and Meneghin made a brave stab at crossing the old stuff with the new, playing a barely rehearsed, intimate sit-down show, MTV Unplugged-style. Sure, the crowd was more excited when Phair dug out "Black Market White Baby Dealer" than when she debuted "Everything to Me." And setting aside the guitar to vamp her way through 2003's "Rock Me" drew far less drool than her cutesy, unerotic read of 1993's "Flower" (you know, the "blow job queen" song). On the other hand, compared to the bold choruses of "Polyester Bride" or "Extraordinary," the old favorites from Guyville actually sounded kinda small. I didn't want to hear Phair shoehorn her voice back into that low tomboy register, and the simple guitar parts of "Girls Girls Girls" and "Mesmerized" made the songs sound like brittle miniatures.

So where's the happy balance? The problem with hits like "Extraordinary" isn't that they're phony, but that they don't present us with anything that's unique to their performer. Likewise, on "Everything to Me," it's impressive to hear Phair's voice -- which used to change registers the way an old Chevy shifts gears -- tackle a lung-busting power ballad, but it's not Phair's power ballad. Anyone could sing it, and plenty of American Idol leftovers could do it better.

But on both of her Capitol records, you'll find other songs that could have come from nobody else -- like Somebody's Miracle's excellent opener, "Leap of Innocence," which feels like a long talk with a woman whom you're done breaking up with. Somebody's Miracle lands in the bottom half of Phair's catalog -- to my ears, it's one "Uncle Alvarez" short of Whitechocolatespaceegg -- but unlike her self-titled disc, it sounds unforced, unified, a good deal more "Liz Phairian."

When we spoke at the hotel, I asked Phair which audience is more fickle, the indie rock fans who want her to stay the same, or the new pop crowd that just wants hits? "Can't tell yet, can I? I can't tell how much of my essence got through to the new fans, like, if they would become loyal in their own way, you know? Or if they just liked that song."

Perhaps Phair's blessing and curse is that she still wants to please both camps. She wants to keep what she calls "the warty underbelly of yourself," that humanity that's in all of us and that came through so poignantly on those rough-sounding Guyville songs. But she also wants to be a star, the kind of celebrity who can project herself onto gigantic screens, and Gap ads, and huge, roaring crowds.

And that's what makes her so compelling, what may be the most "Liz Phairian" thing about her, that she's struggling so publicly to bridge that divide between the bedroom songwriter and the spectacular star, and that we can watch her succeed or fail almost song by song. If Sheryl Crow recorded Somebody's Miracle, which is not hard to imagine, it would be a blip on the radar. For Phair, it's another chapter in an ongoing struggle. It fascinates us because the process is so transparent, and because maybe that ambition, and that need to shine, is the most awesomely human thing about her.

As we wrapped up our interview, she pointed to the bar that we faced. "Here, here's a good [example] of lighting. Look at how good you look in the bar. It's designed like that." The surface was a translucent, grayish silver that caught the light just well enough to give a reflection. "It's a bar, so everybody wants to feel really good at night. Don't you look pretty good?" And she was right: I'm just a scruffy writer, but in that perfectly engineered surface, I had to admit I looked really good, too.

About The Author

Chris Dahlen


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