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The new Liz Phair's as good as the old

By Matt Ashare

AUGUST 10, 1998:  As recently as four years ago, if Chicago indie-rock songstress Liz Phair had sung a line like "I'll see you around," she'd have meant it as either a straight kissoff, a sly come-on, or maybe even a little of both. Back then she was still our trailblazing self-proclaimed blowjob queen, teasing and inspiring her fans with the suburban white-girl equivalent of gangsta boasts like "I'll fuck you till your dick is blue" and pointing out with feigned innocence that one of the advantages of doing it "backwards" is that "That way we can fuck and watch TV." And whenever she used the word "baby," even if she was just trying to express tenderness, it sounded a little bit dirty. That was the Liz Phair who almost singlehandedly saved indie rock from becoming a sexless teenage wasteland, and whose 1993 debut, Exile in Guyville (Matador), unwittingly made the risqué rock of Alanis Morissette possible if not probable.

The Liz Phair who emerges on the new whitechocolatespaceegg (Matador; in stores this Tuesday), her third album not counting the 1995 early demo collection Juvenilia (Matador), is a far different beast. It's her first album in four years, during which time she got married and gave birth to a son. Major life changes don't always affect the work an artist produces. But for someone like Phair -- a singer/songwriter who draws candidly on personal experience, or at least likes to create the impression she does -- it's inconceivable that marriage and childbirth wouldn't be reflected in the songs she writes and sings. The word "baby" has now taken on a whole new meaning for her. And when she belts out "I'll see you around" in the booming chorus of the opening tune (which is also the title track) of the new album, you get the sense that, whatever it means, she's no longer playing the dating game.

That may not seem very rock and roll, but it might just be the best thing that could have happened to the 31-year-old Phair. For starters, it's encouraged her to outgrow the blowjob-queen persona of Exile in Guyville at a time when, thanks to the likes of Morissette, the pop world has become, well, a royally windy place. And being a wife and mother has also opened up vast expanses of psychic and emotional terrain for her Muse, helping her to define a new songwriting persona. On whitechocolatespaceegg she comes across as the kind of tentative grown-up whom most rebel kids never imagine themselves becoming, even though Hollywood romantic comedies are full of them -- the thirtysomething transitionals who belatedly and sometimes even eagerly accept the responsibilities of adulthood as a romantic challenge, a drama to be experienced. "Love is nothing like they say/You've got to pick up the little pieces every day," Phair admits with an odd mixture of weary resignation and delight on "Love Is Nothing," as if she were happy to have discovered that it's not all just fun and games and trying to make dicks turn blue.

Phair doesn't sing much about dicks or fucking on whitechocolatespaceegg. She's too busy getting tangled up in other shades of blue. The self-doubt that comes with being a parent surfaces in the reflective ballad "Only Son." "All these babies are born to the wrong kind of people/And I wish I had known I was not good enough," she sings, with such a lack of drama that the loaded lyric may fly right by you the first time you hear it. Understated bluntness is one of Phair's songwriterly gifts, and it's every bit as effective here as it was when she was delivering lines like "That way we can fuck and watch TV." It's even more devastating in "Go On Ahead," where Phair sings from the perspective of a young mother watching the love drift out of her marriage: "You say you're a ghost in our house and I realize I do think I see through you," goes one particularly barbed lyric, which is delivered so unassumingly that it sounds almost like a compliment.

Unlike her first two CDs, which were recorded with Chicago producer/engineer/drummer Brad Wood (Veruca Salt, Ben Lee), whitechocolatespaceegg appears a more scattershot affair. Wood's credited with producing five of the 16 tracks and Phair with four; the rest were handled by veteran studio dude Scott Litt. Yet the disc may well be Phair's most focused and polished to date. If Exile in Guyville was basically a rough-hewn, let's-get-the-songs-on-tape effort, and Whip-Smart found Phair using the studio as a sound lab to experiment a bit with pop deconstructions, then whitechocolatespaceegg comes across as a thoughtful attempt to combine the best of both worlds. The title cut is loosely layered with woozy skewed guitars, and it stacks doubled vocals. "Perfect World" is a folky number that features one of the disc's most Phairish declarations ("I want to be cool, tough, vulnerable, and luscious") framed by fingerpicked acoustic guitar and orchestral strings. Programmed drums lend an appropriately cold undercurrent to "Go On Ahead"; "Polyester Bride" is as tight and tuneful a pop number as Phair's ever recorded.

And the tunes Wood and Phair are credited with producing -- including Wood's "Polyester Bride" and "Johnny Feelgood" and Phair's amusing accordion-laced "Shitloads of Money" -- tend to be the strongest of the bunch. Indeed, the only real throwaway here is "Baby Got Going," a noisy, harmonica-driven blues rocker that Litt both produced and wrote the music for. Maybe it's not Litt's fault, but the disc's only out-of-place instrumental embellishments, like the synth bass line on "Headache" and the screaming guitar on "Baby Got Going," are on the numbers he produced. It's as if he didn't really get what it is about Phair that makes her so special.

So what is that? Well, it has something to do with her melodic sensibility, her way of carrying a tune around unexpected corners, coupled with a natural vocal delivery that creates an easygoing (though not quite carefree) atmosphere even on songs in which the mood is tense or pensive. But on whitechocolatespaceegg it's clearer than ever that Phair's aesthetic sensibility goes beyond simply doing what comes naturally. The tossed-off quality of her first two albums went a long way toward disguising the craft she put into the songwriting. Like fellow indie-rock songwriters Lou Barlow (Sebadoh) and Stephen Malkmus (Pavement), Phair styled herself as a songwriting underdog whose successes might just be happy accidents. But the imperfections on whitechocolatespaceegg -- the line she flubs at the end of "Headache," the off-key vocals at the beginning of "Girl's Room," the lazy phrasing on "Fantasize" -- are a little too perfect to chalk up to chance.

Phair's attention to those kinds of details -- the imperfections that make a song and an album seem intangibly intimate -- is reminiscent of the care country-rocker Lucinda Williams is reported to have taken to make her critically acclaimed latest album just right, which is to say subtly wrong or not quite polished in all the right ways. Although Phair is 10 years younger than Williams, the two also stand on common ground when it comes to issues of gender, which is to say that they're both strong women who aren't afraid to be, well, women. To borrow from one of Williams tunes, they demand their right to passionate kisses. Or, to quote that Phair line one more time, "I want to be cool, tough, vulnerable, and luscious."

Where the two part ways is in their relationship to their songs. Williams aims to write Americana classics, tunes like "Passionate Kisses" that can be covered by other artists and become part of the great American songbook. And that leaves a certain distance between her and her songs. Phair, on the other hand, writes songs that it's hard to imagine anyone else performing. "Fuck and Run," "Supernova," and, with the exception of "Baby Got Going," everything on whitechocolatespaceegg seem meant for Phair and only Phair to sing. Even "Big Tall Man" and "Only Son," which are sung from the perspective of a male subject, are sculpted to fit the contours of Phair's voice. So the real triumph of whitechocolatespaceegg isn't that Phair's grown up, or even that she's grown into her new life as a mom/wife/rocker. It's that she hasn't outgrown the instinct just to be herself.

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