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Liz Phair's 'Funstyle': Interesting, even to hate

LIZ_PHAIR_FUNSTYLEAnd the conversation went something like this:

OMG LIZ PHAIR POSTED A NEW ALBUM ON HER WEBSITE.

I heard it's terrible.

You can download it for $5.99.

It's terrible, It's all over Twitter and you should read the comments on Jezebel! I hear she raps on the song that's streaming on her website.

It's her first new album in five years. Yeah, that "Bollywood" song definitely grates a bit on first listen -- is she making fun of M.I.A.? (Or maybe she's sending the younger critical it-girl a warning about what happens after you've been branded a sell-out,) But that's just one track. The album has 11.

I'm sure it's terrible. I hate Liz Phair! She made me fall in love with her when I was a kid, and then she turned out to be nothing like what I wanted her to be!  Hey, somebody on the Internet said the best line is about her throwing up and the second best one rhyme's "genius" with "peen-yus." She is SO dumb.

I think I'll go take a walk and listen to it.

Tell me how it is. It's going to be terrible.

Sigh......

Hating Liz Phair is fun, almost as fun as turning the pop-fashion tide away from M.I.A. by doubting her motives behind having a child with a wealthy man, or dissecting the ways Sarah McLachlan was stupid in her attempts to revive the Lilith Fair. This rough summer for feminist pop musicians doesn't strictly reflect sexism; often, women are the most vocal in expressing wrath toward role models who suddenly seem all too human. For Phair, who enjoyed a modest revival when ATO Records reissued her groundbreaking debut album, "Exile in Guyville," in 2008, being the object of others' effervescent scorn has become old hat: every album she made after that one sent more of her fans into attack mode. The fact she called this new one "Funstyle" -- as well as some of the music included in the package -- indicates that she now means to make this hating game her own.

It's a little sad that Phair has grown so defensive that she's included not one, but three joke songs in which she depicts herself as exactly the kind of desperate would-be Hollywood A-lister her former devotees fear she's become. (There's a fourth that makes fun of self-help gurus and the Starbucks-haunting moms who love them.) Dan Weiss at the Village Voice music blog mentions Frank Zappa in reference to these cuts, and he's right, though I hear more Laurie Anderson: the voice manipulation, the self-parodic white-girl funkiness, and, most of all, the lovingly self-mocking superego that floats over all of it suggests that Phair, like Anderson, knows she's part of the very systems she mocks.

I thought of another longtime master of satire while listening to Phair's funny stuff: Dr. Demento, the great radio clown who recently ended his long run on the airwaves. Her broad, homemade humor attains a kind of warmth that counteracts the bitterness beneath it.Her earthiness, always one of her best qualities, shines through on these tracks. Yes, they're unexpected, but they're totally accessible.

Elsewhere on "Funstyle," Phair sends more confusing mixed signals, in material that intrigues on a cut-by-cut basis but doesn't quite hang together as a complete work. "You Should Know Me" seems like a Grade-B corny love song -- until the second listen, when it becomes clear that Phair's telling her paramour that she just can't fulfill those cliches. "My, My" is a glammy disco track that the Scissor Sisters should cover, but its lyrics veer toward the banal. The sonically intriguing, George Harrison-like "Oh, Bangladesh" runs on an extended metaphor that never fully comes to fruition.

These tough-to-decipher tracks don't feel like mistakes; they're attempts at something new, and any one could lead Phair somewhere interesting. Scattered among them are songs in which she sticks to what she does best, and they'll satisfy any fan who puts down her preconceptions and takes the time to find them. "Miss September" gently pulls out the slivers of a damaged romance. "Bang! Bang!" is a defiant expression of desire by someone painfully aware of her own limitations. "And He Slayed Her" shows Phair making a game of the current vampire craze by reviving the spirit of Buffy; her reclamation of female anger in the face of male privilege feels honest and relevant.

Whatever form these songs take, they're uniformly inventive and individualistic  -- Phair's ongoing project of remaking pop's central sounds and stories in her own image. Someday, I'll bet, we'll look back at her whole catalog and see how smart and defiant and insistently herself she always was. "Funstyle" is not quite like any other pop album you'll hear this year. You might think it's terrible. But you shouldn't overlook it.

-- Ann Powers

Photo: Screenshot of the "Funstyle" artwork on Liz Phair's Website. 

 
Comments () | Archives (7)

Could I be bold enough to cite Erykah Badu's "Nu Amerykah" as another possible influence? "Funplay" has a lot of the DIY, experimental, Garageband-sounding, WTF-ness of that album.

As every other fan I am shocked by the release of this new album that came out of nowhere. I thought this was a joke at first especially after listening those 4 "joke" songs. She definitely has a sense of humor and doesn't take herself seriously. I've already listened to it twice and I like it for what it is. It's not terrible but it's understandable if people hate it. I must say that there are atleast 4 gems in this album and I'm grateful for those few good songs b/c I've been craving some new Liz Phair since 2005 . I hope next time she does a better job and releases a serious album.

Thanks, Ann, for a REAL review of this album. The groupthink Pitchfork sheeple have hated on this from the get go.

It ain't a masterpiece, but it sounds like Liz is experimenting with funkier sounds. Several of these songs reminded me of a Goldfrapp/Roisin Murphy/Portishead kinda thing.

I liked it. And yeah, AJ, this feels loose like New Amerykah Pt. 2.....of course, the Pitchforkers love their music perfect and sterile, with just enough disassociation and lack of vulnerability for them to listen to it while they wear their ironic T-shirts.

I haven't listened to Liz Phair since Exile, which I revisit rarely but admire. I lived through the original Liz Phair explosion living in Chicago. But I haven't really followed whatever evolution of sound and styles she has gone through since then. However, despite the horrendous buzz, and after listening to the most of these new tunes, I downloaded Funstyle. To me it's a good 6-song E.P. Am I going to listen to the "joke" songs more than once -- not a chance. In fact, I will just delete them. But the other six songs are enjoyable and worth repeated listens.

Thanks for this evenhanded review, and for not knee-jerking to "This sucks!" like every other thing I have read about "Funstyle."
The first time I heard "Bollywood" I admit, I had a major "WTF?" reaction. Then I bought the whole album and have listened to it many times. I have to say: I love it. It is angry and funny and clever and weird.
She's clearly fed up with all of the bullsh*t her last few albums have evoked from "fans," and I love her gigantic middle finger toward the music industry. The humor on the album is laugh-out-loud good. Some of the music styles remind me of pop music from the high school/college days (Liz and I are the same age, so maybe it's just nostalgia on my part). In addition, the Indian-inspired songs are creative and interesting.
I hope she keeps being true to whatever musical journey she's on. She's a bad*ss and will always have important things to say.

This is Liz Phair experimenting again, and for that alone, I give it high praise even if I don't love every track. The hight points - "Bang Bang" and "My Bangladesh" are wonderful - definitely make the download worthwhile at $5.99. I could have done without some of the joke songs, but I do really like "Bollywood." The whole thing feels much more like Liz than did the fairly awful "Somebody's Miracle" which felt contrived to a level unimaginable for an artist that always - to me - seemed to know what direction she was moving in. Here, though she still may be directionless, she's definitely course correcting. A final observation: I'm one of maybe a handful of people in the world that love Liz and love Madonna - and it's incredible how similar some of Liz's vocals sound like Madge. Intriguing, but I guess pretty distressing to most of Liz's original fan base.

Like many 30-ish women, I was raised on Liz Phair and all the other great 90's ladies. I love her and even loved the self-titled album of indie treachery, although I do agree with Jason that Somebody's Miracle is the only album of hers I would consider a true failure, something she was just phoning in. And I love Madonna, too.

On Funstyle, I think Liz sounds more engaged with the songs than she has in years. It makes total sense that the CD will be packaged with the finally official release of Girlysound because the irreverent absurdity and monologues sent against music of both is very similar. The "joke" songs Pitchfork has dismissed--"Smoke," "Bollywood," Beat is Up," and "U Hate It," are the ones I love the most. They've all been stuck in my head all day. Luckily I didn't read any reviews until after I listened to the songs so I was able to listen without any tainting from the kewl police.

More than any other musical artist I grew up with, I feel like Liz's albums parallel my real life as it changes. Exile and Whip-Smart were my high school and college years. Whitechocolatespaceegg was me going through my mid- to late-twenties, negotiating more mature relationships and commitment. When Liz Phair (the album) came up, I was no longer interested in indie cred and I loved how the glossy sheen corresponded with my cleaned-up, more grown-up life and yet, there was still That Girl underneath it all. "Beat Is Up," is parody, a joke but also oddly compelling. I don't think she's making fun of housewives searching for salvation. I totally GET wanting to do everything perfectly all at once, being a great wife, mom, spiritually evolved, going to the gym, UP UP UP and then also wanting to throw myself on a stake. That rings very true to me and where I am in my life now. And it could be sad but I love that the song is so damn manic-sounding, that I can't help smiling to it.


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