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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  • EightE1

    Thank you, my fellow spastic Internet presence, for this quite accurate review. I do not share your impressions about the self-titled record, but your thoughts on Funstyle are dead-on. Nicely done.

  • Eric S.

    Wow, that “Bollywood” song is too bad to even be considered a joke or novelty. Odds of me checking out the rest of the disc based on this song: Slim to none. Hard to believe that's the same person who did my favorite cover of “Turning Japanese”

  • Old_Davy

    If there was a ducking under chair icon available here, I'd use it because I kind of like “Bollywood”. I haven't heard the rest of the album but as a Liz phan, I'll prolly buy it.

  • Matt Springer

    Thanks EightE1! What's your take on the self-titled?

    Eric: If you can find any other tracks to sample online, I encourage you to do so. “Bollywood” makes me squirm but there are some good numbers. I think I've seen a few leak out on YouTube?

    Davy: Even the chair would not make you safe from “Bollywood.” :)

  • DwDunphy

    I haven't heard “Bollywood” yet, but the description alone made me think Animal Collective vs. M.I.A. in some sort of indie trendjacking attempt.

  • Keith

    Prince should take a cue from Liz – there are fans – like me – who will buy it no matter what and form my own opinion. Prince should drop 20Ten for sale on his own site before the free CD drops for free this weekend in Europe and is bootlegged globally. I just downloaded Liz in lossless audio for $5.99 – can't wait to load it onto the iPod and see what she's been up to. So far, she's dropped more enjoyable records than forgettable ones, so the ball is in her court.

  • MichaelFortes

    It's far, far worse than that.

  • MichaelFortes

    I too do not share your thoughts on the self titled record. However, I will give you this — there was a pretty decent EP's worth of bonus songs that she made available when you stuck the disc in your computer and accessed some secret web site. I never did grab those songs, but I wish I did.

  • Marlon Viviezca

    i feel like wanting to cheer her on and just push her to being weird. just be weird, liz, do weirder stuff because it seems like her last album before funstyle went into sheryl crow territory which was unacceptable. i love smoke. smoke is a centerpiece. musically dense and the refrain is so catchy and the keyboards in it, very interesting and a lot of things going on. oh bangladesh is also one of her best songs. the songs which sound jokey at first but are really conceptional reminds me of one of her best rarities, bars of the bed. i think if this is liz now, i would have no problem with it because at least she infuses it with her own personality not one borrowed from lesser artists. also, the weakest songs in the album are the ones that sound normal which are miss september and satisfied. that's something.

  • Dennis

    Everyone seems to be shocked about how bad this record is, but in reality, she was nothing but a minor talent anyway.

  • Michael Parr

    That would require Prince to have a website. *sigh*

  • Steed

    The Internet is dead Michael. Dead.

  • Matt Springer

    wow, I did not even know those songs existed. I am woefully behind on my Phair rarities. It would probably have helped if I didn't steal the album from the internets.

  • Matt Springer

    Yeah, I'm sorta in the same boat, in that Phair is one of those artists who I will always follow and check out, no matter what they release. I found the more spoken-word tracks on Funstyle to be embarassing and a difficult listen, but yeah, I guess I respect that she's doing her own thing and putting it out there at this point in her career. Honestly she could easily be touring off the fanbase from her first couple records combined with the new stragglers she brought in with her self-titled and do very well hitting small to medium clubs 200 dates a year.

    I have to say, too, that I personally enjoy her most “normal” songs alongside her looser material. I like both sides of Phair's work, as it were. And I think regardless of production, she's always been doing big hooky pop material–there are songs on Exile that with a different sound would be all set for arena rock just as much as anything on her self-titled.

  • Michael Parr

    Oh, yeah – I almost forgot. I swear, sometimes that man makes it hard to support his every endeavor.

  • Keith

    If I'm not mistaken, those songs wound up becoming the physical release “comeandgetit” – I see the disc all the time in used CD stores and once in a while it surfaces online at an Amazon vendor. Of her latter era work, this is by far my favorite. I am still pouring through the new album (purchased yesterday), it was either buy that or a footlong at Subway.

  • Keith

    I feel the exact same way. A good acre of my CD collection is dedicated to the man and his sorted projects. I came “this close” to abandoning him after his wince inducing comments to the audience on the “One Night Alone… Live” CD set (which I highly regret buying three of thinking they'd be collectors items someday instead of doorstops). As a PR pro, most everything the man says in public sends a chill down my spine, its as if he's hell-bent on ruining his brand.

    In the meantime, I'll give my Phair lady a chance. But in a week stacked with 90's back-from-the-dead comebacks, my iPod is locked on the glorious new EP by The Bogmen.

  • Matt Springer

    thanks, I need to track that down. I wonder if that's the only material from those Michael Penn sessions or if there's more in the proverbial vault?

  • MichaelFortes

    Thanks for the tip! Somehow this one escaped me. Now I've got something new to hunt down.

  • DwDunphy

    I've no problem with Liz being experimental, but to charge for it, even for the greatly reduced price Funstyle is at, is like willingly selling the funky, past-prime milk. Sure, it may not be that far from the expiration date, but it's bound to make the majority a little ill.

    If she had issued Funstyle as a two-fer of EPs, charging for the more normal stuff, and then giving the bizarro EP away as a gift, I don't think the indie blogosphere would be reacting so harshly.

  • DwDunphy

    At this stage in Prince's career, I liken him to the tall tale of J.D. Salinger and how, supposedly, he kept writing long after Catcher In The Rye, but deposited all the manuscripts into a bank vault. Prince, it seems, is content with setting his career up in flames with a dash of white lightning, but his ego will not allow him to go quietly into the night.

    I wish he would stop the games and just release the music. Let the material speak for itself. If 20Ten is worth it, it will promote itself through the fanbase. If not, so be it, but these pronouncements of the death of the Industry and the death of the Internet sound more like petulance than anything else.

  • Keith

    Wikipedia seems to suggest there are a lot more tracks in the vault. I'd love to hear those – and anything (if there is anything) from her earlier sessions with the dearly departed Jim Ellison of Material Issue.

  • Keith

    Definitely hunt for the physical CD, I saw one at Amoeba in LA a while back, its a good collectors item. For the tracks (and a few others from various sessions), look up one of the best blogs on planet earth: Symphony of Ghosts.

  • Keith

    When you hear amazing Vault songs like “Witness 4 The Prosecution” and full albums like The Undertaker – you realize what a shame it is Prince prefers to polish, buff, shine and sand his studio recordings until there is no edge to them – he is one of the world's best guitarists (sorry Orianthi) but you'd never see that in his studio work. If he opened his vault for $0.99/song, he could have an inventory that rivals iTunes. I love how Smashing Pumpkins opened their first era vault on iTunes nd Amazon that way – so much treasure from their most prolific days.

  • Matt

    Keith….Symphony of Ghosts….AWESOME! I forgot about that EP – glad to hear that and some other tracks..

  • thefrontloader

    But she looks really good naked with only a strategically-placed guitar covering the bathing suit areas.

    I'm a Phair phan but “Bollywood” made me scream “Demon computer! Demon computer!” while covering my ears. Based on that song, I can only hope that the album is exactly as you describe it because then it would be a least worth picking up.

    I can kinda-sorta understand the reason why “Bollywood” was released as the first single… she's taking a “STAND.” She's “BEING REAL.” She's “TELLIN' IT LIKE IT IS” and all that muck.

    Turns out, she's also “SOUNDING BAD.” Which trumps everything else. Go figure.

  • Matt Springer

    what a find! thanks Keith!

  • Matt Springer

    God yes! I too loved (and miss) the Ish.

  • Matt Springer

    There's two issues there–I honestly wouldn't expect Phair to give her music away. But like you said, it would be great if she had an editorial sense of her own music, at least enough to winnow out the crap and release the good stuff.

  • Matt Springer

    I could be nuts; Douglas Wolk over at Pitchfork wasn't very happy with the non-nutso tracks either. I think there's something there. And if you're into the value for money angle, you basically get seven decent (good? great?) tracks for six bucks. Beats iTunes prices.

  • thefrontloader

    Wow seven good tracks ain't half bad!

  • Clive Young

    It's about as listenable as anything else of hers that I've come across over the years–which is to say, it's pretty damned awful.

  • Keith

    To bring the conversation full circle (for anyone who reads this down the line), the new Prince album is pretty damn good, and pretty damn short – as pop n' fresh as Planet Earth, which in my opinion was his best since The Gold Experience.

    The Liz album, eeeks, Popdose nailed it – some fine singles lost among some stinkers so bad, I began to wonder if Liz had anything to do with the “release” or if someone decided to monetize a bootleg. Throughout, I kept thinking about SNL's Fred Armisen sketch about the Marble Columns and Chandeliers – as if he went up to soccer mom Liz and tried to tell her what the kids are into these days, “you gotta get a sound effects albem, M.I.A. uses one on her LP's and she's really papular – I'm not sure what all the gunshots are about – maybe it's a car backfiring – it doesn't need to make sense, the kids dig the weird stuff – If you can't get a Tea Paine on your albem, you gotta get some sounds effects!”

  • Dude

    It seems clear to me that she chose Bollywood as the give-away track in an effort *not* to sell copies of the album. Bollywood says, “okay, if you buy this album, no-one's pulling anything over on you. You know what you're in for and the rest is up to you.” It was the perfect track to pick.

    In general there is very little music of which I would say it's “UNWORTHY OF RELEASE.” And certainly I wouldn't say that of this album; I knew what I was in for, I bought it anyway, I got my $6 worth. Man, “UNWORTHY OF RELEASE,” what kind of nonsense is that. No-one's making you listen to it. I don't begrudge anyone listening to whatever garbage they want to listen to. Or recording whatever garbage they want to record.

    The joke tracks on the album probably don't stand up to repeated listens, but they're funny once. I have heard them all at least 5 times without skipping them. Some of the other tracks are okay. I appreciate that she's doing her own thing, whatever it is, clearly without concessions to a producer or even her audience. I feel like, the person singing Smoke and Beat Is Up, that's that girl who sang Black Market White Baby Dealer and Elvis Be True. She's not always deadly serious; didn't everyone know that? And if she needs some cash to finish working on a “real” album, or even another one of these, man, I'm in for $6.

  • breadalbane

    >>In general there is very little music of which I would say it's “UNWORTHY OF RELEASE.”

    Me, I'd say there's quite a bit of music that is unworthy of release. The issue is quality control — I'd rather have a single great album of songs by my favourite artist every five or six years, than have to wade through several years worth of misfires (and pay iTunes or CD prices for the extra tracks) in order to assemble it myself.

    Of course, there are those who enjoy hearing the misfires, the unfinished demos, the ephemera. Personally, I think it takes away from an artist's legacy. (I also believe the term “experimental” is industry short-hand for “An experiment that didn't work”. ALL good music is experimental on some level…but the experiments that don't work should never leave the lab.)

  • pad

    A fantastic review. Finally someone who doesn't just go; “it's crap” in paragraph form.

  • Argentinian fan

    great review!! the best i've read so far. thank you so much from argentina

  • Matt Springer

    It's not so much that I think the spoken word/”joke” tracks don't belong because they're humorous and she should be some kind of Serious Singer-Songwriter. To me, they're not all that funny, they're self-obsessed to the point where they're completely inscrutable and unrelatable to me, they're bitter and angry with little to no wit or intellect, and they're musically disastrous.

    Everything else, though, is really good.

  • Keith

    Did anyone see Liz's statement on the album? Is this digital album already out of print? If she didn't mean for us to hear them, then who sold them to us and took our credit card information?

  • Zac Chandler

    I love the whole thing..I think its great…would like to have it on cd ..Oh but I hav'nt listened to it yur stuff or zak

  • Zac Chandler

    I love her good or bad

  • Wes

    Great review and glad someone likes Funstyle… but listening to it myself. I really think Liz Phair to music as to what Ed Wood was to cinema. There is no self awareness to how awful this album and she seems shocked that an industry has all but dropped her (the music biz is brutal, but in this case they are right…)

    There is so much to like about what Liz Phair used to do with rock despite herself, myself and 15 years… but Funstyle is dog vomit and would be too spendy even were it stolen . Liz stopped caring, which is more than I can say for her fans, we deserve better.

  • Zac Chandler guitarist

    All of you I’d bet would like Liz and the band to wear matching outfits too..U guy’s suck I’d bet you could’nt write your way out of a paper bag…These songs are from her and I’m glad she got your attention! Thanks Liz for all u do Zac Chandler musician / songwriter

  • Videorat

    Thanks, I love her 1st 3 albums, but she has sounded largely awful since. I think I’ll skip this one too.