Music reviews, while they can be insightful, are of course subjective. They can only describe so much of one’s perspective. Ultimately, the music has to be heard firsthand.
Writing this review in particular is difficult for me, as I’ve always considered Liz Phair to be my most cherished artist and I fear I have no choice but to be biased. I’ve loved just about everything she’s done, even her unapologetic move to the world of pop in 2003. Even its 2005 follow-up, the lacklustre Somebody’s Miracle. And although I prefer the earlier albums, Phair’s trajectory in the music world has been a fascinating one.
Ever since Phair released what many critics agree is her best album, 1993’s Exile in Guyville, she has been scrutinized under a close microscope. Every subsequent album receiving a bit more negative criticism than the one that came before it. Many of her critics have yearned for Phair to return to Guyville-like territory, but her music ultimately immersed itself into pop and less into what was once termed ‘alternative rock.’
But now, free from the restrictions and demands of a bigger label, Phair seems to be experimenting with a new direction for her music – one that hints at the silliness and originality found on her early demo recordings, the types of songs that eventually built the foundation that Exile In Guyville stands so proudly on – even to this day.
Earlier this year over Independence Day weekend and with little fanfare, Phair quietly (and digitally) released her latest album, an 11-track experience aptly titled, Funstyle, through her website.
The album is an experimental melting pot of sorts, a curious if inconsistent mixture of infectious pop songs and large doses of more bizarre cuts, some of which clearly give the finger to former label Capitol and make mention of Phair’s recently departure with ATO Records.
The album opens with the track ‘Smoke,’ a song that serves as an introduction of what to expect (or not to expect) with the rest of the record. In it, Phair attempts to gain admittance into a boat party, but is quickly rejected when she’s not on ‘the list.’ Chock-full of voice-overs and strange noise, the song is cheeky and peculiar, if not confusing.
One of the more ‘out there’ tracks is undoubtedly ‘Bollywood,’ the song otherwise known as the one where Liz raps. Set against a backdrop of a dhol drum, Phair spouts about her foray into television score writing and her need for additional money-making gigs due to declining music sales. After the initial shock subsides, the humor is quite evident.
As strange as Funstyle is as a whole, there are some strong songs here that fit well into some of Phair’s best. ‘And He Slayed Her,’ ‘Oh, Bangladesh,’ ‘You Should Know Me’ and ‘Bang! Bang!’ each bring something new to the table, while ‘My My’ is a surprisingly funky up-tempo number.
Funstyle closes with ‘U Hate It,’ another strange cut that features two male commentators bashing Phair throughout its two minutes while she sings in the background. Toward the end, Phair begins an imagined acceptance speech to which the commentators begin to radically change their tune on their adoration.
For Phair’s fans that date past her eponymous album, Funstyle will be undoubtedly polarizing, but ultimately rewarding as it clearly demonstrates Phair’s refusal to be pigeonholed. This is a record without the pre-planned blueprint normally found on traditional albums – this is the equivalent of a scribbled page in a child’s coloring book. Sure, it’s a mess, but it’s a whole lotta fun.
Now in the midst of a west coast tour, Phair has recently performed for Matador Records in Las Vegas and is planning additional dates for the rest of the country.
Funstyle will receive a CD-release on October 19 with a second disc of songs that comprise ten of Phair’s original and highly sought after Girlysound demos. This is the first time that such a large collection of these songs have been made available officially.