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Liz Phair: growing up in public

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The Metro's sound system was booming out Elton John's "The Bitch Is Back" when Liz Phair and her band took the stage Saturday night. It seemed like a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of the backlash that's followed her sudden celebrity. If fans came to see her shine, detractors came to see her fail. What I saw was something in the middle: an interesting presence who has yet to ignite onstage, an untested singer too often swamped by her own words, but at the heart of it all a gifted songwriter loaded with potential.

Phair came out of the blue with Exile in Guyville, the double album she fashioned with local producer and musician Brad Wood. According to Phair it was high-concept, somehow matching the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street cut for cut. The hubris in this is extraordinary. It's the most pretentious idea to come down the pike in some time, and Phair's devotion to it produced an album marbled with fat. About half the cuts sound like meandering, undeveloped ideas tacked together in the studio to fit the concept.

The other half, nonetheless, constitute an auspicious debut, delivering surprise, tension, and dramatic musical flourishes that explain what all the fuss is about. The album starts off with an undeniable bang. "6'1"" is a remarkable piece, a hard and jangly tune that recalls some of the Velvet Underground's dark pop grit.

In the tradition of all good rock and roll tunes, Phair at her best writes new songs that have an instant ring of familiarity. Wood was able to punch some of her folky-boned tunes into eloquent garage-rock pieces, but he also knew when to hang back, providing lean layers of instrumentation. "Soap Star Joe" is a fine example, using echoey electric guitar fills and harmonica wails that edge in and out with precision.

Songs like "Glory" and "Dance of the Seven Veils" are lovely folk tunes that eschew the frequently maudlin excess of folk. These cuts, peeled down to voice and guitar, show off Phair's strong, basic chord structures.

Lyrically, when Phair's good she's very good. When she's bad she's merely clever. Her main flaw as a songwriter is that she sometimes chooses a cute turn of phrase instead of digging for the deeper line. "I want a boyfriend," she sings in "Fuck and Run," an honest, complicated yearning for love in the modern world. Lyrics like "I can feel it in my bones / I'm gonna spend another year alone" pack a terrifying, subtle punch: weighing loneliness against the looming months ahead, Phair hits a raw, true nerve. But in the next verse she blows it. "I'm gonna spend my whole life alone," she sings, replacing genuine grown-up fear with the universal plaint of the whining teen.

Phair grabs at sexual politics most overtly on "Flower," a workout she delivers in an automaton's drone. Unfortunately her words come off as shock posturing rather than true emotional revelation. Phair's on shaky ground here, considering Chrissie Hynde worked this turf to stunning effect, most notably on "Tattooed Love Boys." Phair's line "I want to be your blow-job queen" sounds shallow and almost quaint next to Hynde's ferocious and sexually charged "I shot my mouth off and you showed me what that hole was for."

But these lyrical missteps are only occasional and far from fatal. Phair has a telling eye for detail--"I write with a number two pencil / I work up to my potential . . . I come when called" she sings with appropriate bland aplomb on "Canary"--and she grafts catchy melody onto her words.

Singing, however, is another matter. On the best tunes her flat, strained, off-key delivery works, achieving a sardonicism that's reminiscent of Lou Reed's worldly drone. "And I kept standing 6'1" / instead of 5'2" / and I love my life / and I hated you" she sings on "6'1"," tossing in a disconnected "yeah" at the end of a phrase. It's a tough, deadpan moment, instilled with all the arrogance that marks the best rock and roll. However Phair's undisciplined voice tends to waver erratically, and this can get trying over the long haul. An uninterrupted listen to Guyville's 18 tracks can seem like a long night at the karaoke bar.

At Metro Phair seemed new to singing, unsure of where her range is; sometimes her low voice dipped well below the mix, murky and undefined. But her delivery reveals that she's hunting up inventive ways to challenge her melodies. Now it's just a matter of pushing her pipes up to the same level.

Wisely Phair pared her live show down to Guyville's essential nuggets--just like the album, her set blasted off with "6'1"." Her guitar playing was steady, nothing fancy, just hard strumming that probably hasn't veered much from the original chords she used when she first wrote the songs. Phair brought along part of her Guyville session crew, Brad Wood on drums and guitarist Casey Rice, plus bassist Leroy Bach. They played loose but tough, proving that the best Guyville cuts were no flukes. The Stonesish "Mesmerizing," with its snaking blues guitar line and hand-held percussion accents, weaved and darted with real authority.

During "Never Said," a soaring, propulsive piece, Phair for the first time leaned into her voice, pushing it past its normal puny boundaries. It strained around the words, hiking up in volume, suggesting a half-buried ability for some real vocal attack. If Phair wants to convert her detractors, she'll have to invest seriously in this sort of fire.

At one point in the show there was a pause of several minutes for some equipment readjustment, and Phair, guitarless and center stage, had to fill time. She threw some questions at the audience. "Who read what and who dropped out of school?" she asked. It was a self-conscious, slightly nervous moment, but not without its charm. It showed her with one foot still in college, not fully formed into an adult.

When the band finished and split the stage, the applause was solid but not wild. It was encore time, and Phair, a likable but not yet riveting performer, had nonetheless earned one. After a few minutes the lights came up on the empty stage, and no encore came. It was an abrupt end, a neophyte performer's mistake not to save a clincher to send the crowd home on.

But Phair's only beginning her rock and roll journey. That she's doing it as a headliner at the Metro instead of in a Tuesday-night death slot at some local dive is the root of the backlash against her. Most other bands come into success, if they come into it at all, with gigs under their belt, hard-core rehearsal time logged, stage personas already solidified, Liz Phair, on the other hand, is growing up in public. Under the spotlight it's hard to hide the flaws. Time, however, can change lots of things. And time, this time, is on her side.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin-Photo Reserve.

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