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CD Review: Liz Phair’s “Funstyle” — Great, When It’s Not Shit

The news spread across my Twitter feed late yesterday afternoon like a pixelated wildfire:

1) Liz Phair had a new single out;

2) It was fucking horrible.

These things are true. Liz Phair does apparently have a new “single” out, a freebie cut from an Internet-only album she’s selling from her website entitled Funstyle; and that single, “Bollywood,” is fucking horrible.

The rest of Funstyle does not go as quietly into the good night; it’s not the wholesale career suicide that “Bollywood” seems to indicate. There are moments that finally fit into the context of Liz Phair’s career; I say “finally” because I personally have a hard time fitting her last record, Somebody’s Miracle, into that same context, so it almost feels to me like she’s been “gone” since her self-titled controversy magnet of 2003.

(Which I’ve written about before, so I won’t get into it again, but if you dismiss that record as “Liz Phair trying to be Avril Lavigne,” you are absolutely missing out, and you need to listen closely to it again without whatever baggage you bring to it based on its production style and how it fits into the pop music landscape of its time. It’s a rocking, thoughtful, sly and revelatory pop record by a thirtysomething divorced mother completely in command of her creative and musical powers.)

The problem is that the good stuff on Funstyle does not fit comfortably with the weird shitty stuff, except in the possible sense that they all at least attempt what Liz Phair has always been so good at–marrying her interior life with universal truths, and universal truths back to her interior life, in a way that’s both confessional and relatable at the same time.

The shitty stuff is so distracting from the good stuff that my first impulse is to just write about why the shitty stuff is shitty, and more importantly, what she could have done to avoid the shitty stuff in the first place…or at least, what could have been done to avoid the shitty stuff being the only thing people seem to want to write about. Which presumes that was not her intent, and maybe it was; maybe the headline on the exceptional piece by Seth Colter Walls and Maura Johnston for the Awl is correct, and she’s really saying, “Look, Internet — I’ve set myself on fire.”

But what needs to be said, and what you should take away if you care about Liz Phair and are interested in her art, is that there’s a really awesome EP hidden within Funstyle. In terms of sound, it’s kind of a combo platter of all her records to date–some loose rock in the mold of her first two records, some gentle guitar pop a la Whitechocolatespaceegg, and even a few bits that sound like leftovers from the self-titled record and its disappointing follow-up.

These are strong songs, mostly relationship tunes, that are about the realities of confronting love, not in a spongy greeting-card sense but in an “Oh shit, I love you, now what” sense. Her narrators (and as always, the listener seems meant to wonder how much of these narrators are Phair herself, and how much is creative fabrication) have to come to terms with how they feel and what it means to their lives. Inevitably, they choose the comfort of companionship in spite of the pain–on “Miss September,” Phair sings, “and I’ll lay with your prize inside me/keep it calm, keep it safe/until you awake.” It’s a gentle moment, but infused with sex; classic Liz Phair, open and true and sincere, and tuneful and hooky.

There’s a darkness here too, especially on “Bang Bang,” for me the collection’s real standout. It’s a simmering admission of futility, in life and love and creativity: “No more tricks in the old trick sack/the minutes tick by till the watch face turns black.” Keyboards and a piano plink in an echoing void, just barely supporting the vocal. Electronic beats tick away just like the minutes on that clock. The piano leads out on a tender, haunting coda.

So there’s that. Buy Funstyle, because the good stuff is absolutely worth $5.99, and I’d love to see an album full of songs so good and performances so confident.

And now…the rest of the story.

It’s troubling. “Smoke” opens the collection with a litany of issues and complaints relating to her ongoing struggle to find relevance, respect, and most importantly, financial security in the music and entertainment business. There’s music in it, and a decent hook, and if this were as self-indulgent as she got, you could even forgive it, because it’s just playful enough not to be taken seriously, even the “poor poor pitiful me” portion about how she couldn’t get into some awesome boat party.

Then comes “Bollywood,” the song that most everyone with an interest in Liz Phair has heard and dismissed, and rightfully so. It’s a horror show of a track that seems to be about Phair’s negative experiences trying to write music for the short-lived CBS series Swingtown. It features wacky voices, sound effects, and a suggestion that Phair’s frustration will lead her to murder some executive somewhere and leave him floating face-down in her pool, like if Charles Manson had recorded a novelty track.

“I was trippin’ lookin’ at my portfolio/wonderin’ how I was gonna make enough dough, you know” is how she opens “Bollywood,” in a sing-songy rap style, and I’m instantly disconnected, because if there’s anything I could not give two shits about, it’s how rock stars are going to fund their golden years. It goes on from there and gets worse.

“Beat Is Up” sounds like a hate track against suburban housewives in Chicago. Way to smack around an easy target, Liz. All your aging indie cronies join you for a holier-than-thou chuckle!

“U Hate It” closes the record, and while some have pointed this track out as a pre-emptive “fuck you” to the inevitable detractors of Funstyle, I hear it as a far more specific assault at the many music industry execs who have failed to recognize Phair’s brilliance over the years. Or maybe it’s specifically to the idiots who refused to release her songs with Michael Penn, who are, it must be said, legitimately foolish people.

It could be that I just want to hear it as more of an industry attack, because if this is how she chooses to respond to her critics and fans that may not agree with this change in direction, it’s hard not to feel spit upon. After dropping six bucks for the privilege of hearing “U Hate It,” I do not want to be spit upon, honestly.

What’s most troubling to me about the painful gauntlet of music that must be overcome to get to the good stuff in Funstyle is that they show a total lack of self-awareness on the part of Phair, even if you assume that they’re present only to confront, confound, and even pre-empt her anticipated criticism. They’re woefully bereft of universal truths and exist only as a snapshot of Phair’s own current interior life, which seems kinda bitter and sad, but not in a compelling way, more in a slow-down-train-wreck way. Like if you see someone crying in her car, but they’re really beautiful, you might think about how beautiful she is, but mostly you’d wonder why she’s crying. And if you find out she’s crying because Bella chose Edward instead of Jacob, you roll your eyes and think that’s really pathetic.

These are songs that make you roll your eyes and think, “That’s really pathetic.” At least, on their surface; if Liz Phair is sincerely writing strange spoken-word tracks about how she can’t get into parties and she hates big media companies who don’t pay her enough, that’s pathetic to me. If she’s creating some kind of commentary or parody of feeling that way, I don’t see it.

Which brings us to the other problem, one of presentation rather than content. Obviously it seems to me a huge mistake that “Bollywood” is picked as the lead “single” from this collection. It’s not really representative of the whole; although there are other tracks like it, it’s actually the weakest of those tracks. It has no hook, it exhibits the worst of her inner-monologue indulgences, and it invites immediate comparisons to other female artists popular today , which makes it seem (whether she wants it to or not) as though she’s trying to somehow imitate these artists, even if that’s highly unlikely upon closer examination.

So who made that call? Since it’s a self-release on her own website, I assume it was Phair herself. Doesn’t she have any close friend or collaborator who would say, “Listen, this is cute I guess, but these other songs are WAY better and they deserve attention without this ugly distraction.”

I do have some advice for Liz Phair, but I don’t think she should listen to me; I’m a PR and marketing drone some of the time and a spastic internet presence the rest. I’ve never released an album; furthermore, I’ve never posed naked with only a strategically-placed guitar covering my bathing suit areas.

I think Liz Phair needs a good producer. A collaborator. Someone she can trust who will tell her when she’s doing shitty work. Because although there is something undeniably interesting about “Smoke” and “Bollywood” and “U Hate It,” they’re not fun to listen to, and they’re not even worth money. Even as free experimental Internet releases, they’re dubious at best. On “Smoke,” she even name-checks Jon Brion, and SHIT, I would camp out for a week at that place where they sell plastic discs with music on them to baby boomers to buy that record. I would wager Jon Brion wouldn’t have let any of these songs out the door.

I understand she’s had trials and tribulations with the industry and with music executives, and so she’s probably hyper gunshy about being told that any of her work is unworthy of release, but seriously, Liz, SOME OF THESE SONGS ARE UNWORTHY OF RELEASE. I wish someone close to you had told you that so we could all JUST be talking about how great songs like “Bang Bang” and “Oh, Bangladesh” are.

Because the rest of Funstyle is also interesting, but manages to be good and occasionally great at the same time. So it would have been great if someone had been able to tell her, “Look, Liz, whatever you may think you want is fine, and if you need to bundle some self-destructive half-thought-out obsessively narcissistic crap in with these other pieces that really deserve a listen, no one can stop you. But someone should stop you, because no one will hear the good stuff until they’ve had a good whack at mocking the shit, and maybe that’s unfair, but it’s also unfair to fuck around with good work when there’s no good reason to, save your own insecurities and ongoing fixation on how fucked-up the music industry is.”

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