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Liz Phair

Phair unfazed by criticism of latest CD

It appears reports of the demise of Liz Phair's career were greatly exaggerated.

When Phair, who had long been a darling of critics and the indy music scene, released her self-titled fourth CD last summer, it unleashed a torrent of criticism.

The CD found Phair abandoning the "low-fi,'' more intimate sound of her much-lauded 1993 debut, "Exile in Guyville" for a big, slickly produced, commercial-sounding production. Even worse, she teamed up with the songwriting trio the Matrix — Lauren Christy, Graham Edwards and Scott Spock — to write four songs. The Matrix, of course, helped craft much of the music on Avril Lavigne's mega-successful debut CD, "Let Go."

None other than the New York Times said Phair was committing career suicide with the CD. Other reviews were just as harsh.

Nine months later, both Phair and her CD are alive and kicking. "Liz Phair" has yet to become a major hit, but this spring's tour by Phair is a sure sign her CD is not dead in the water.

"I don't think the record label (Capitol) feels like we've tapped it out yet, which is really, really good," Phair said.

And while the furor over the CD has died down, Phair, who said she was surprised by how venomous some of the reviews were, clearly has done her soul searching over the reaction. In the end, she wondered if her CD symbolized a far bigger disappointment for indy music fans.

"Maybe I was like the last artist down the pike before they had to accept that the music business is not the same, do you know what I mean?" Phair asked. "I know that was coming back with emo-core, and people were like: 'Yeah, because business is so big right now, all these little indy things are going to crop up and it's going to be like the Internet. We're going to sell on the Internet. We don't need big business.' I think a lot of indy people were hoping for that, that climate that they had in the '90s, to come back again. And I think maybe with my record, it was like just so accepting of the way business is done today that they were like: 'No!'"

That last comment gets to the crux of the dilemma Phair confronted with her current album. In essence, Phair said she decided to work within the major-label system by giving Capitol Records what the label wanted — a few potential hit singles — to buy herself the ability to do other tunes that spoke entirely to her artistic impulses.

Phair started recording the CD with Michael Penn, only to decide after completing a version of the CD that she wasn't finished with it.

"The record I had with Michael, like he's so circumspect about what he works on — it's a great thing — but I lost that side of me that's obnoxious and is exuberant in that record," she said.

Phair realized at that point, her only option to get funding for additional recording was to add some commercially viable songs to the CD. That's when Capitol Records suggested collaborating with the Matrix. What Phair didn't realize at first was she already knew Christy and Edwards, two of the three songwriters in the Matrix.

So she knew the collaboration would work.

"To me, even though it was going to be a pop sound and very different to my sound, I knew that the material we were going to get was both going to be really fun to do and I knew I was going to be able to make the parts that were important to me my parts," Phair said.

Of course, many music critics haven't been as impressed. The Phair/Matrix songs especially have been vilified — and at least to a degree, justifiably so. "Extraordinary" and "Rock Me" are lightweight by Phair's standards, while "Why Can't I" shares more than a few similarities with the Matrix-penned Lavigne hit "Complicated."

But "Liz Phair" has some redeeming material as well. The refreshingly understated and tender "Little Digger," finds single mother Phair dealing unflinchingly with the moment when her young son is trying to understand what an overnight stay by a boyfriend means to his world. The melodic mid-tempo rocker "Firewalker" possesses an especially beguiling melody.

The hooky rocker "Love/Hate" offers an unflinching look at sexual politics.

And to Phair, 37, most critics have completely missed the fact that "Liz Phair" fits entirely within the overall story she's been trying to tell since she first raised eyebrows with the sexually liberated songs on "Exile in Guyville"

"My sense of my music is I am telling stories of a girl to woman's life," she said. "Everything about what I do is telling this story of what it was to be me, what it was to be a woman during this time period and how I felt and how my feelings conflicted and the messy truths of a woman's life.

"(What) drives me more than anything is to mark my place in history because I feel going to college there are not those stories historically of what it was to be female throughout history and how we felt and what we went through and what our lives were. And I'm logging on. That's the essential value of what I do, bottom line."

Liz Phair plays Tuesday, March 16, at the Pageant, 6161 Delmar Blvd. Tickets for the 8 p.m. show, which also features Wheat and Rachael Yamagata, cost $20.

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