News that Liz Phair has "super cheap" new demos recorded, as well as the deluxe rerelease of Exile in Guyville, has people talking about a return to relevance after her years in the pop wilderness. I think Robert Christgau had the final word on her sell-out--"You want her to express herself? She just did."
Anyway, indie's a matter of degree. Way back when she was allegedly more relevant, not everyone agreed she was so. In 1994, Reader critic Bill Wyman hosted a hilarious letters roundtable on the Chicago indie scene, inspired by Steve Albini's assertion that Phair was "a fucking chore to listen to" and part of a trio of "pandering sluts" that also included contemporaries Urge Overkill and the Smashing Pumpkins. "Artists who survive on hype are often critic's pets. They don't, however, make timeless, classic music that survives trends and inspires generations of fans and other artists. There are artists in Chicago doing just that, but you don't write about them." Much vitriol ensued. As someone who was 13 and way far away from Chicago during the Guyville era, it's like straight Margaret Mead to me.
Sayeth Phair: "Of course, I'm gonna bust my ass marketing anything I do. It all comes in a whole big package. There are musical lifers who don't see it that way, to whom it's a sacred art form. But I've always been a slut in that sense..... This is also a business, and business is creative too. Damn straight I'm manipulating my career and the media. I don't mind treading the fine line between doing something interesting and valuable for society and totally just exploiting my popularity. I'm 27, I'm ready to cut my teeth on something. If it wasn't this, I'd be blasting into offices somewhere else wanting to get to the top of the corporation. It's ambition. Total, simple ambition."
I highly recommend the biographical site Wild and Unwise, particularly the chapters College and Girlysound, which capture the postcollegiate urban boho atmosphere Phair emerged out of. The fame of the subject aside, it's an amazing time capsule of a certain class at a certain time: "In San Francisco it was all kernels of ideas, but nothing ever happened."
FWIW, I still maintain that Whip-Smart is her best album (though as a member of the unfair sex I will defer to the feminist significance of Exile), perhaps because it fits in with the urban pastoral music I love, from "Penny Lane" to the Kinks to Pavement to Prefuse 73. I realize I am alone in this, but I do think it's a pretty album.
Tangential update: Is the insipidity of blog commenting killing the art of the letter to the editor? I hope not.
Update II: I should mention that Wild and Unwise has interesting passages on her guitar style. LeRoy Bach: "People never talk about her guitar playing. But she's brilliant on guitar. The work that she puts into this shit is not discussed like someone else's work method might be discussed." IMO the biggest problem with her newer records is that the big production takes the musical burden off her sui generis guitar sound, and the result is less surprising and suspenseful, so to speak.