Album review: Liz Phair, "Funstyle"

August 2, 2010

Liz Phair, "Funstyle" (self-released) Rating:2/4

You’ve gotta hand it to our wayward homegirl on this count, if no other: At age 43, a dozen years after “whitechocolatespaceegg,” her last beginning-to-end enjoyable album before she moved to Hollywood and began trying to morph into Sheryl Crow, La Liz still has the ability to polarize people and get both pro and con talking about her.

Unfortunately, like so many people in Hollywood, she assumes that people talking about you is a good thing, regardless of the reasons why those tongues are wagging. And that simply is not the case.

Phair’s first album in five years, since the “so bad it has to be a joke, right?” disaster of “Somebody’s Miracle,” was released on her Web site on July 3rd, and that still is the only place you can buy it (for the reasonable price of $5.99, thank you very much). So how did she come this Radiohead-style self-released crossroads?

After splitting with Capitol Records in 2005, Phair signed with Dave Matthews’ boutique label ATO, strange as that may seem. (Chicagoan Gregg Latterman of Aware Records and Train, Five for Fighting, and John Mayer infamy was managing her at the time.) ATO reissued the renowned millstone around her neck “Exile in Guyville” in 2008, and the company was slated to put out her next new album shortly thereafter. It never came, and now, a note from our heroine at the top of her home page says of this new set of tunes:

“You were never supposed to hear these songs. These songs lost me my management, my record deal and a lot of nights of sleep. Yes, I rapped one of them. I’m as surprised as you are. But here is the thing you need to know about these songs and the ones coming next: These are all me. Love them, or hate them, but don’t mistake them for anything other than an entirely personal, un-tethered-from-the-machine, free for all view of the world, refracted through my own crazy lens. This is my journey. I’ll keep sending you postcards. – Liz”

That note, combined with the D.I.Y. method of release and the title “Funstyle” itself, all strike me as an attempt to put this new album in a similar category as the “Girly Sound” cassette that first introduced Phair to the indie-rock world, before “Exile in Guyville” and the expectations that have dogged her ever since. And, if you strain to listen very hard, there are some faint of that long-ago Liz, the one who envied the boys in Wicker Park’s Guyville at the same time that she mercilessly mocked them, the one who simultaneously was laughing at the notion of “stardom” and trying to claw her way to the top, and the one who nevertheless ultimately was making music for the freaking joy of it, to amuse herself, and maybe a few friends.

I always liked that Liz the best—and she already was starting to disappear by the time of the “post-feminist answer to the Rolling Stones” conceits and hype of her proper debut album—and, as much as it shocks me to admit it, I find that I actually dig the six “experimental” tracks on “Funstyle,” the ones that have generated all of that Internet chatter: “My My,” a lovably clumsy homage to Funkadelic; “Bollywood,” which is both a tribute to and piss take on M.I.A.; “Beat Is Up,” a gonzo techno track that goofs on an Indian self-help guru; the ambient house toss-off “Bang! Bang!,” and the two wickedly sarcastic parodies of record industry doublespeak, “Smoke” (Liz raps! And with insane operatic ululations in the choruses, no less!) and “U Hate It,” which finds a couple of bozo suits heaping disdain on the record we’ve just heard, only to do a 180 and take all the credit once it starts to sell. Meanwhile, Phair comes in on the choruses with the stupidest lyric she’s ever written, yet it undeniably worms its way into your head: “Uh oh, you don’t agree on it/Uh oh, I totally love it/Uh oh, I think I’m a genius/Uh oh, you’re being a penius… colada, that is.”

It takes guts to put out tracks that stooped brilliant, and cudos to Phair for doing it; I’m still not sure if I’m laughing at her or with her, but I’m listening, so I guess it doesn’t matter. Unfortunately, the other half of the album hones to the dreadfully dull, unimaginative, plodding, and joyless California pop of her last two Crow-wannabe abortions, and there literally is nothing to recommend in utterly generic crap such as “Miss September,” “Satisfied,” and “You Should Know Me.”

“You should know me better than that,” Phair chastises an errant lover in the latter tune. But which Liz is the Liz that the “real” Liz still is so eager for us to embrace? Damned if I know, and I probably never will.