Liz Phair, s/t (Capitol)

LizPhaircoverI’m going to go far out on a very thin limb and say that Liz Phair’s eponymously-titled fourth album is actually good. Having gone from DIY lo-fi indie queen to working with Avril Lavigne’s production team, The Matrix, dealt Phair a severe credibility blow. Reviews have made much of the slick hyper-produced sound, but, it’s been ten years since her debut. Are we not supposed to expect any change? Even the subtle musical shift from her debut Exile in Guyville to its successor WhipSmart showed an interest in becoming more accessible. In such a way, Liz Phair is something to which she has always aspired.

It is impossible to dispute that Liz Phair lacks the quirks and individualism that made her first records great. The four songs produced by and co-written with the Matrix draw an especially shallow caricature of Phair’s personality. The hooks are obvious and the sexuality seems deliberately calculated to reprise Phair’s mid-nineties image.

The good news is that there are ten other songs here – all written by Phair without The Matrix. In them, she covers all her old bases and expands her horizons. “It’s Sweet” will sound instantly familiar to old fans. The overt sexuality of “HWC” is the genuinely naughty Phair juxtaposing the vulgar and brainy as she did on her debut, but here with more verve and better chops.

Phair’s musical style has always been tied to her unique voice – a low, sultry tone with a flat timbre that adds a directness to her delivery. Her previous albums have kept the music relatively simple beneath her voice. On Liz Phair there are more colors in the music (especially some fantastic bass playing) and Phair sounds more confident stretching her voice out of its comfort zone.

The “Baba O’Reilly” overtones to “Love/Hate” perfectly suit the first genuine anthem Phair has ever recorded. In her lyrics of conflict, Phair’s voice delivers real joy.

At the other end of the spectrum, a reserved tone frames “Little Digger”–a song about her son watching her date. The care evident in the lyrics and the strings of pretty melodies are heartbreaking and happy all at once.

This is the complexity Phair has always delivered and the reason mainstream needs her perhaps even more than she wants their approval.

[This piece originally appeared in the Rage.]