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

July 6, 2010 |  6:30 am

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. 

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