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Phair Madness?


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Album of the Year? I demand a recount!

After weathering a veritable hurricane of critical hyperbole for most of the year, I decided to purchase the Liz Phair CD [Hitsville, January 3] and see for myself just how good Spin magazine's album of the year was. My reaction after repeated listenings: it's no good. Indeed it's virtually without any redeeming qualities.

We've all been told what a talented songwriter Phair is, but to my ears she wouldn't know a song if it crawled up her ass. The woman is obviously so full of herself that she lacks the humility to objectively listen to her music and realize she should limit her singing to the shower. I honestly believe that if she were a man she would never be tolerated, much less exalted to stardom by the media. Ms. Phair's story is a classic case of the arrogance and self-importance of the rock media. She is so blatantly a media-manufactured phenomenon; the result of rock journalists and "taste makers" believing they are powerful enough to make a star out of their drinking buddy, even if that person is of marginal talent at best.

But people aren't buying it. By Bill Wyman's own admission the disc has sold only 24,000 copies. That's enough to get most acts dropped from the roster of any decent sized label. And this is after a nine month long barrage of critical tongue jobs and features in nearly every national publication in which Ms. Phair eagerly posed half-clothed in various tarted-up "Lolita"-like poses. And what's with the cheesecake shots? Is it satire? Do none of these critics find it incongruous that some young female rock performer attempting to be perceived as a strong and important new talent would eagerly "get her tits out" at the first opportunity?

As for the nearly unanimous praise from rock critics (a group notoriously out of step with the tastes of most music listeners), I can only assume that in an attempt to maintain their so-called cutting edge, hipper-than-thou credentials, they went way out on a limb and have been justifying their butts off ever since. It seems that none of them wants to be "the one that doesn't get the joke." Maybe they feel that if they throw enough compliments at it, it will metamorphose into something good. A classic "emperor's new clothes" scenario.

But critics know that no matter how hard they hype an act, the public will ultimately have the last word. This of course is a source of constant irritation because it points out the fact that their jobs are essentially meaningless. Music, like other art forms, is something people make an emotional connection with. No amount of critical intellectualizing and appeals to the mind can change a listener's opinion if no emotional connection is made with the music.

And what does the music sound like? Exile in Guyville is a ponderously long, seemingly endless series of thin, atonal nonsongs. Something akin to a demo tape by a coffee house singer laboring under the mistaken impression that the public wants to know everything about her personal melodramas. Hopefully producer Brad Wood did not charge Phair for the "production work" because it is nonexistent. The sound of the disc is awful. Wood himself sounds like he's playing on a drum kit he purchased at Woolworth's. And he evidently had neither the presence of mind nor the guts to tell Phair that for most of the proceedings she is singing in a key known only to aliens. I understand that the "stripped down" sound is de rigueur these days, but with Phair's clumsy guitar playing and grating, monotone vocal style, perhaps a grandiose Phil Spector or George Martin approach would have been more apropos. But then maybe Wood figured the "hands off" production style was fitting because, as the old saying goes, "You can't polish a turd."

So while a small group of Chicago rock journalists continue to tirelessly champion one mediocre Wicker Park act after another, dozens of legitimately talented bands and performers go unnoticed. Certainly there are other artists in Chicago and elsewhere that warrant even a fraction of the attention Ms. Phair has received.

Kent Szadowski


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