Music » Music Sidebar

Girl Problems

A SLits live album and Liz Phair's latest illuminate the prejudices that (still) plague women in rock.

by

comment

The Slits

Live at the Gibus Club

(Sanctuary)

Liz Phair

Somebody's Miracle

(Capitol)

It's 2005 and one thing is clear: rock critics still have their heads up their asses where "women in rock" are concerned. Though there has been some progress in the last decade or so, the plight of the female musician is still very much a plight. If it's not the sexualizing review it's the backhanded references to talent or ability or the speculation about whether the artist is the one in control of her own image and ideas. The sort of gender-suffused discourse spun by music magazine journos and freelance flacks has as much to do with the fantasies we build up around an artist as it does with the killer riffs on side B. And once the mythology is handed down and locked in, it hinders any attempt at a clear, unbiased critical listen.

The Slits, UK punk's first visible all-girl band, for example, are mentioned as forebears or "punk's grandmothers" in every girl-punk history. While that certainly counts for something, their legacy as it's commonly understood and recited abnegates the sense that they may have had any true talent. The established "facts" are these: They could not play. On their first tour, opening for the Clash, Mick Jones had to tune their guitars for them. They were a visceral, caustic, and calamitous band--fantastic in spite of their riotous defects, claimed a 1979 NME review. They were primitive rank amateurs who did not give a fuck. It's implied that if they did in fact care, they would've become good in the technical, virtuosic sense. But since they didn't, it must be that their songs were not of their own careful design.

What's extra ridiculous about this is that during the baby years of English punk, the prime dictum was not giving a fuck: pretty much every band consisted of pimply kids clawing at clumsy power chords out of disdain for virtuosity. The bloated power noodling heard in the Stairways to Heaven of 70s rock was the sworn enemy. Yet somehow 30 years down the pike the Slits are singled out as being uniquely inept, their innovation and songwriting rarely granted true legitimacy. Discussions of the band and their debut album, Cut, rarely take place without reminders of what they "could not do," critical examinations hemmed with "in spite of" rather than acknowledging that there had never been a band like the Slits. Ultimately their genius was writ (off) as accidental.

The liner notes for the recently released Live at the Gibus Club (Sanctuary) do little to dispel the prevailing mythology. "They were breaking new ground without really trying," writes their road manager, Don Letts (later of Big Audio Dynamite). Then, chiseling a cheerful patriarchal platitude into the band's headstone, he adds that the band created great music "through sheer emotion and desire." Live is culled from a five-night stand in Paris in 1978, shortly before the Slits recorded Cut, and features their original lineup, with drummer Palmolive (later of the Raincoats). It's rather shocking. For all the descriptions that make them sound like jungle cats on an episode of Wild Kingdom, for all the talk of their emotional, visceral, and nontechnical playing--they sure do sound like a band. Like a band that had been together for three years, composed of people who'd been playing instruments for about that long. They sound like what they were: a skronky minimalist funk quartet masquerading as a punk band.

The ghostly reggae sound and island-tide jerk that would distinguish Cut is barely evident on Live--instead the band is melodic and surprisingly poppy. Viv Albertine's guitar playing is a staccato crunch, like someone marching on ice, and the deeply rooted rhythm section specializes in bounce. Ari Up's German accent sneaks out from behind her crisp British e-nun-ci-a-tion on her singsong shouts. She's at her most shrill only when heckling the hecklers, sounding like a Teutonic Bette Davis as she tells one, "Go back to Texas, cow-booooy." In the span of 30 minutes they bang out ten songs, then encore with two they've just played ("Split" and "Shoplifting"). While it isn't as en fuego as their Peel Sessions--their earliest and best recordings--Live at the Gibus Club is a solid addition to their catalog.

While the Slits' legacy is built on their supposed lack of intent, Liz Phair has made her intentions known since day one. The cover of her debut, Exile in Guyville, shows her lunging toward the camera, blurred in motion, mouth open wide, baring tit. Supposedly a double-album response to Exile on Main Street, Guyville dealt with desire both explicitly and subtly. Phair forged a bond with her audience based on the authenticity of her portrayals of postcollegiate ennui, romance, and fucking. Her songs were stark, feminist, and prosaic, titillating but never crass. You felt smart identifying with them. She may have been a neophyte, but she displayed outsize ambition and was accepted as a serious artist. She was excused from the rote special grief reserved for female musicians regarding whether they "can play." Those rankled by her candor or disappointed by her live performances were grossly outnumbered by the fans and critics genuflecting at her feet.

Phair's '03-'04 game season was little more than a louder, more overt application of the plays that had been working for her all along. Liz Phair, her first album in five years, featured her nearly naked on the cover. But while she was still offering libidinous odes, she was piggybacking them to glossy production and the sort of hooks that sound good all the way up in the cheap seats of the Coors Light Pavilion.

This attempt at having it both ways misfired big time: critics lambasted the 36-year-old single mom for both acting like her 25-year-old self and not sounding like her 25-year-old self. The way scenesters and critics alike clucked their tongues about her miniskirt poses and songs about fucking you'd think she'd included a bukkake DVD as a bonus disc.

The real problem was that when a 36-year-old combines big-budget production with overt sexuality, she knows exactly what kind of transaction is at hand. Phair had broken an unspoken rule, one that holds as true in rock 'n' roll as it does in a strip club: When you acknowledge the exploitation, you corrupt the fantasy. You can go for the cock, but don't start fishing around for the wallet, too.

In recent interviews Phair has said that anyone still hung up on her arty indie rock of a decade ago "should get over it." Her latest album, Somebody's Miracle (Capitol), is a 14-track telegram that lets you know if you came looking for anything other than music to play in your hair salon, you're shit out of luck. She makes getting over it phenomenally easy.

Somebody's Miracle has the glimmering sheen of Liz Phair, but the would-be Matrix hits have been replaced with a style of music known in the biz as boring. The lyrics are purloined from "Love Is" cartoons, and her pro-boner sentiments have been replaced with virginal tenderness: "Let your body hold me close / Let your body move you / Moooove yaa" is the album's most explicit line. "Everything (Between Us)" hints at some of the hallmarks of her sound--the loose jangle that slides into the unassuming slow burn chorus--and "Table for One," a song about self-medicating, drinking, and shame, could almost fit on Whitechocolatespaceegg, with its simplicity and questionable Spanish guitar interlude, but in the end neither one's good for much more than playing behind the closing credits of a Julia Roberts chick flick.

The rest is worse--an interminable mix of Crisco-gilded AOR that sounds like Sheryl Crow if she had two ideas instead of just one. With Somebody's Miracle Phair eviscerates all trace of the artist we thought we had pigeonholed, leaving little to grasp and even less to fight about, and forcing us, once and for all, to take her on her own merit.

Liz Phair

When: Tue 10/25, 7:30 PM

Where: The Vic, 3145 N. Sheffield

Price: $30

Info: 773-472-0449 or 312-559-1212

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Anne Fishbein, Dusan Reljin.

Add a comment