Liz Phair


Before I proceed with the ritual disembowelment of Liz Phair's latest CD, "whitechocolatespaceegg", let me state for the record that I really wanted to like it. I mean I REALLY wanted to like it. I didn't discover Phair until 1996, when I picked up her sophomore effort "Whip Smart" in the used bin. Oh sure, I heard the buzz in 1993 about "Exile in Guyville", her debut record that is generally regarded as one of the best records this decade, but for some reason I never picked it up. And when she released "Whip Smart" in 1994, I caught a couple of videos on MTV for that album's singles, "Supernova" and "Whip Smart", but I was unimpressed and felt no compulsion to listen to the rest of the album. Ironically, it was "Whip Smart" the single which somehow got caught in my head two years later and led me to purchase "Whip Smart" the album. I've been hooked on Liz Phair ever since. (I have never understood the negative press reaction to "Whip Smart". It was a departure from her "Exile" sound, but not an abandonment; a natural growth that showed that Phair wasn't just a one-season wonder.) After about a month of listening to "Whip Smart" and nothing else, I bought "Exile" and gorged myself on that for a while. Since then, I've been waiting with as much anticipation as any fan for her long-overdue third album.

Based on the early reviews, "whitechocolate" seemed destined to fulfill longtime fans' expectations while allowing Phair to reach a more mainstream audience. It was praised as a record that brought to the forefront the strong melodies that had always lurked beneath her cooly wry voice and in-your-face attitude. She was also commended for dealing with more mature themes, such as motherhood and marriage, without giving up her brutal honesty or her wit.

I'm not quite sure what record these reviewers were thinking of when they wrote their reviews, but it sure doesn't sound like the "whitechocolatespaceegg" I own (perhaps they are thinking of one of infamous scrapped demo tapes that have been circulating since 1996?). The delays—switching producers, endless remixing, marriage, motherhood—obviously took their toll on this record. The songs are musically and lyrically flatter than her earlier efforts. Though she's obviously trying to expand her lyrical abilities beyond a first person narrator that might as well be her by looking through the eyes of people of diffent ages and genders, she just can't quite pull it off without sounding hollow. "Only Son", about a boy who runs away from home, and "What Makes You Happy", an exchange between a mother and her adult daughter, both seem a little too forced. Don't even get me started on "Polyester Bride"—the having-a-conversation-with-my-bartender frame is so trite it's almost painful to listen to. The chorus for "Big Tall Man", the most radio-ready track on the CD, is so bubblegum pop that it isn't even included on the lyric sheet—think Debbie Gibson meets Third Eye Blind. "Johnny Feelgood" sounds like it could have been an outtake from "Exile"—but almost too much like it could have come from "Exile". Even "Shitloads of Money", which is a remake of one of the songs from her original demo tapes, has been whitewashed into oblivion and sounds as bland as the rest of the album.

There are a few good tracks on whitechocolate, however. My favorite song is the weirdly hypnotic, synth-driven "Headache", which I like almost because it doesn't seem so forced—it almost sounds like a throwaway track that Phair did just for fun. "Baby Got Going" is in a similar vein—a fuzz guitar and harmonica blues romp at warp speed. "Perfect World" is a quick acoustic number that sounds a lot like the Liz Phair I love—interesting, experimental, insightful. "Love is Nothing", a tender meditation on the small joys and pains of everyday married life that doesn't get sappy (unlike "Go On Ahead"), and "Uncle Alvarez", a recollection of an eccentric uncle, both have their moments.

Liz Phair's strength always lay in the stark, confessional nature of her songs—even if they weren't autobiographical, you always felt that they could be, so that even while she was telling someone else's story, she was revealing just as much about herself as the character. You always believed that she was sharing something very private with you. With "whitechocolatespaceegg", the stories feel more distant; the listener no longer believes that Phair has anything much invested in them. The music is similarly bland, as if she was writing the songs just because that's what songwriters are supposed to do, and not because she felt compelled to give birth to the melodies inside her head. I can't fault Phair for trying to create a new, more mature musical identity for herself to match her newfound happiness as a wife and mother. But that doesn't mean that I have to listen to it, either.

Chris Pace

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