Monday, June 11, 2018

Review: 3 Liz Phair Albums on Vinyl

Liz Phair’s career arc is among the oddest and most notorious in pop, and UMe’s new vinyl reissues puts the spotlight back on that arc even though her defining album in not among the trio (Exile in Guyville is a Matador property and was recently the centerpiece of a massive 25th Anniversary box set by that label).

While Whip Smart does not have the reputation of Exile in Guyville, it is very nearly as wonderful, catching Phair still riding the peak on which she started her career. Brad Wood’s production is a bit cleaner than it had been on Exile, but Phair’s songs are still fabulously eccentric, personal, amusing, emotionally gripping, and frank… though all that “potty mouth” business that was such a publicity hook 25 years ago feels neither shocking nor nearly as interesting as the other aspects of Phair’s artistry anymore.

The title track of Whip Smart gets my vote for the best pop song about being a parent ever written, and that theme joins Phair’s usual musings about sex and relationships in full force on Whitechocolatespaceegg. However, few critics had been paying attention to how much Phair was also musically yearning for fame beyond the pages of CMJ (as far back as Exile’s “Help Me Mary” she’d been threatening to weave her disgust into fame), and that obsession flowers on Whitechocolatespaceegg both lyrically (see the admittedly ironic “Shitloads of Money”) and practically (see “Polyester Bride”, Phair’s first number to get airplay off the indie stations). Perhaps not coincidentally, that was also the least interesting track on Whitechocolatespaceegg, which still delivered much unique Phair oddness with slanted tracks such as “Ride”, “Headache”, and “Baby Got Going”. However, my pick for the album’s best track, the beautiful “What Makes You Happy”, shows that Phair could adapt her style for the Top 40 pop stations. Why it wasn’t pulled for a single is beyond me.

Perhaps Liz Phair had other ideas about what makes a hit, because her eponymous fourth album is both dogged about getting one (the hit factory known as the Matrix produced four tracks) and totally unlike any of her previous albums. And that’s the main issue with Liz Phair: it is neither terrible nor embarrassing; it simply sounds like any pop singer could have made it. But we aren’t fans of just any pop singer; we are Liz Phair fans, and her presence is barely a phantom on the album she named after herself. Songs about underwear or scientifically dubious properties of semen are more like the work of a lesser artist aping Phair than that of the real deal. Granted, “Why Can’t I” did the commercial trick better than anything else, nabbing Phair her one and only entry in the Top Forty of Billboard’s Hot 100, but even she seems to realize that her true legacy lies in her first album.

Still, we shouldn’t forget how fab Whip Smart and Whitechocolatespaceegg continue to be, and UMe’s vinyl reissues provide fine reminders of that (ever the odd-woman-out, Liz Phair is not a reissue but a vinyl debut). There is no suggestion either in UMe’s press release or on the album sleeves that any remastering has taken place, and played against the original CDs, they sound identical to me. Considering the infuriating 21st Century trend to brickwall everything, that is great news.
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