Monday, August 17, 1998

Cool Tall Vulnerable and Luscious

Liz Phair seems like the kind of woman you could take a road trip to a city like Brainerd with, pass a sign on the highway that says, "LOCAL HONEY" and as you state the inevitably self defining but equally annoying, "We must stop and see how Connie Stevens is doing..." she would react perfectly (which means either giving you the skunk eye, or giggling appreciatively). In other words she seems like the type of person who is ever skeptical but in a fun way.

Her third full length CD, whitechocolatespaceegg is full of songs just like that, shared moments in familiar and intimate language with snippets of insight, intrigue and humor. This was a much anticipated CD from an artist who, since the last time we heard from her, has gotten married and had her first child. I bought the CD on my way to Brainerd for a conference. Though it was great hearing her familiar voice singing new songs amongst the roar of semi's and road construction, it wasn't exactly ideal traveling music. It isn't the type of music you are going to instinctively bob your head to, but rather the type of music where you want to listen to the lyrics carefully. None of the songs on the CD stand out like her best earlier work, songs like Fuck and Run, Divorce Song, and Supernova. Where those songs were immediately familiar and unique at the same time, the best songs on whitechocolatespaceegg are quieter, not as brash or enigmatic.

It occurred to me on my way to Brainerd that most of us have defining moments in our lives that become the standard for all else that follows. For many its high school or college, for some its their wedding day or birth of a child. For Phair it seems to be all those things with the added professional challenge of having everything she does compared with her still startling and masterful debut, Exile in Guyville. That unfortunately is unfair because the standard that CD set would be hard for anyone to match.

Still Phair's songs since Exile have been consistently filled with esoteric moments of rewarding introspection and insight. She is one of the few writers who can walk the fine line between getting the listener to wonder "what does that mean?" while at the same time intuitively feeling what is being expressed. The best songs on whitechocolatespaceegg sound almost improvised, written in a stream of consciousness, yet casually communicative style. One moment she can share a line that seems deeply personal, "And it goes around in circles; one night is lovely, the next is brutal. And you and I are in way over our heads with this one..." The next defuses the intensity with her droll humor, "It's nice to be liked but it's better by far to get paid..."

Much has been made about the six month delay in the release of the CD along with the four credited producers. There is a lack of focus, connection between the songs as if those involved had different goals in mind. Yet having heard demo versions of the songs and the original recording that was rejected by the studio, I must say the finished product works on a level that wasn't present in earlier versions. My favorite song is Ride which begins with childlike lullaby lyrics about getting home drunk and depressed. The song paraphrases a familiar prayer, "And if I die before I wake, I hope the Lord won't hesitate to pluck my coffin from the ground. He need not heed the neighbors now..." And concludes with a different type of prayer about the biology of an inebriated state of mind reflecting on the fragile mortality of life, "I get a ride 98.5. Positive T-Cell, regeneration..." It is the kind of song that Phair remains one of the few who can pull off- simple in its message, personal in its images, universal in its ultimate message.

Another highlight is Girls Room which is a sly look at girls locker room talk. "And we hear Terry says that Tricia's OK but she ought to learn to shave her bikini line better..." And Polyester Bride (which she nervously but admirably performed on last Wednesday's Late Show with David Letterman) where she openly wonders about the price of fame and how she has gotten to where she now (somewhat reluctantly) is. It is wonderful song about a conversation with Henry the local bartender. "You're lucky to be alive. You're lucky to be drinking here for free cause I'm a sucker for your lucky, pretty eyes."

Much has happened between this CD and the last. The success of Lilith Fair, the trend in the industry where female singer/songwriters are now recognized as creating much of the best music has left Phair in a unique position. She'll never attain the popularity of Sheryl Crow or Alanis Morissette, or the acclaim of Ani Difranco or Tori Amos yet she remains one of the few artists whose songs continue to reveal more with each listen.

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