Chicago Sun-Times
Tuning in with Thomas Conner

F--- and run... and run again

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When it comes to noteworthy milestones, the numbers are usually 10, 25, 50 and so on. The 15th anniversary seems like something only a polyester bride would celebrate.

But then Liz Phair has some indie cred to reclaim, a recording career to resuscitate and a new deluxe-edition reissue to sell—on Dave Matthews’ label, no less—and these were all the reasons she needed to return to her old sounds and former stomping grounds for a sold-out show at the Vic Theatre on Tuesday.

Now 41 and more MILF than coquette, this controversial daughter of privilege from Winnetka is, depending on your point of view, a trailblazing post-feminist icon who spoke with unusual power for a generation of young women during the alternative rock explosion, or a pandering, exploitative wannabe cheerfully using every means at her disposal to achieve celebrity—the thinking rocker’s Paris Hilton.

I have always thought there’s some truth in both positions. But wherever you stand, Phair’s absurdly ambitious double-album debut “Exile in Guyville” (1993) remains one of the most enduring discs released in the ’90s. And since the guitarist and vocalist was always a stilted performer at best through most of that decade, a veteran Liz watcher had to be curious to hear if she could improve upon the past by revisiting it in concert now.

Taking the stage in a skimpy vest, skimpier hot pants and towering heels, Phair started with “6’1”” and—sure enough—played her way right through the concluding “Strange Loop” 18 songs and 69 minutes later, with every potty-mouthed confession (“Mesmerizing”), coy come-on (“Flower”) and jarring burst of righteous feminine anger (“Help Me Mary”) intact from the aural diary of her rough and tumble days and raunchier nights in Wicker Park’s underground rock scene back in the day.

“Anybody ever live in Wicker Park?” Phair asked before pushing her way through “F--- and Run.” (People applauded.) “Anybody ever live on the North Shore?” (More people applauded.) “Anybody ever feel like a schizophrenic like me? Good girl, bad girl, good girl, bad girl!”

That was as much insight as we got into the making of the album or its resonance for so many fans. None of her Chicago collaborators or muses were invited, and none showed. (No Brad Wood, no Casey Rice, no Nate Kato.) And Phair still never bothered to explain how exactly the album was an “answer record” to the Rolling Stones’ masterpiece.

In fact, as Phair made her way through the disc with her still off-key voice, distinct lack of onstage charisma and forced stage banter about the Cubs and Barack Obama, backed by various combinations of the three faceless L.A. pros who’ve supported her on recent tours as the Gen X Sheryl Crow, it was hard not to think that while “Exile in Guyville” stands tall on record, it has gained nothing and maybe even shrunk in live performance.

Come to think of it, it would have been much more entertaining to hear La Liz play that other “Exile” in its entirety. At least she might have felt some connection to that one.

Then, before my two-hour meter on Belmont could even expire, after a few more forced songs as an encore—including “Polyester Bride” and and a truly awful new number with a (no kidding) lyric about “ding dong, the witch is dead”—it was over, just another car wreck/hit and run in a live career that has never offered anything else.


Addendum: I found out this morning (thanks, Spiegs!) that several of Liz's "faceless L.A. pros" are in fact Chicago pros. This makes it even sadder that Phair never thanked them, much less introduced them, and if there's a mention of the lineup on her Web site or MySpace page, well, I can't find it. Then again, this "no one to thank but ME" attitude has been in place since "Exile in Guyville" was recorded, so it comes as no surprise.

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Photos by Kirstie Shanley ; text by Amy Phillips Well, that was anti-climactic. But what did I expect Read More

16 Comments

Hmm... is this a "review," or just filler to say that you worked tonight? Do tell.

I agree with Jim completely. The album is important and wonderful in so many ways, but after last night I can't believe the same person who made that recording was the same person onstage. An uninspired and unimaginative performance. The album, as great as it is, presents a framework for an even better live performance. I was expecting it last night - didn't get it. I got the album. Ho hum.

But she did look great.

I'm gonna go out on a limb here. The Gen-X critics I've been reading since I was a kid lavished fawning praise on "Exile," about what a masterpiece it was, etc., etc. And it's got some great tracks on there. But if I want my angry, angsty kick-your-ass-then-bang-you femme rock, I'm gonna take PJ Harvey's "Rid of Me" over "Exile" any day. I just get really bored when I hear Liz Phair referred to as, "a trailblazing post-feminist icon who spoke with unusual power for a generation of young women during the alternative rock explosion." And, just as unfortunately, that's often the reaction of the critical press to her first three records. Thank God everybody figured out that she was just a poseur, and not even as good a poseur as, say, Polly Styrene (that's a joke, everybody. Relax.).

Maybe if you didn't bring your laptop to the show and just were a bit more normal and not a big drag you would have enjoyed the show. Liz rocked, the band was tight and a fantastic time was had by everyone I saw.

You park at the meter? They should give you valet at this point.

Jim DeRo responds: I was just so stunned to get a meter a block and a half up Belmont, I had to write about it. I do not get a valet, but I do have a secret parking area near the Vic, which I cannot share, because then it would not be secret. Sorry!

Mike: If I had not brought my laptop (to file on deadline), it would have been much more distracting writing on the chisel and slate, and keeping the carrier pigeon quiet to bring the thing into the office after the show.

"That was as much insight as we got into the making of the album"

I agree that there wasn't a lot of insight last night, but what about her introduction to "Explain it to Me"? Sitting alone in her crappy apartment, listening to the Stones over and over, playing her guitar over and over again, the crackhead neighbors, and the bitter, bitter cold...I thought that made the song all the more haunting.

Jim DeRo responds: I suppose my appreciation of that anecdote was lessened by the fact that she had said it, nearly word for word as far as I could tell, the night before in San Francisco, according to reviewer Jennifer Maerz: Before she played “Explain It To Me,” she briefed the crowd. “This song was a big fat heartbreaker for me,” she said. “It still kinda is … [The guy it’s about] is still alive and well, amazingly. If you watch the DVD you’ll know who this is about.” (That dude is Urge Overkill’s Nash Kato, Phair’s inspiration for much of Exile.) When she finished the song, she added more: “I stayed in my apartment one summer getting stoned … I sat there listening to Exile on Main St. and stewing over my failed relationship. Only a girl would understand,” she added with another of her many beaming smiles.

I maintain that it's sad that Liz came "home" to the scene that inspired this album, and all she could give us was canned stage patter and chat about the Cubs.

To summarize - you didn't like her stage presence, her songs, her bandmates, her banter, her clothes, her social background, her opportunism, her rough language, her career motives or her audience. But you got good parking.

I came home thinking I didn't have that bad of a time last night, but you are beginning to make a believer out of me.

Hey Jim,

I often don't comment on articles ("I never said nothing") but I felt particularly compelled to for this one ("Help Me, Mary."). Your absurdly harsh and quasi-sexist article ("Now 41 and more MILF than coquette...") really missed the point.

If anything, I left this concert feeling a stronger connection to "Guyville," and it only reminded me why it's such a monumental album worth a 15-year celebration.

You complain about her "skimpy vest," "still off-key voice," and "distinct lack of onstage charisma." But this is why I and a lot of other fans love Liz - she's not perfect! I don't want her to sing on-key or play guitar perfectly. "Exile" is a special album because the songs sound so intimate - like Liz is fumbling around on her guitar, alone in her room (like she said at the show). (And who cares if she told the same story in California? I don't think many of us at yesterday's show were there). I found her stage banter to be slightly awkward but funny at the same time (again, kind of like "Guyville"). And while I would have preferred to see her in a less revealing outfit, who cares what she wears? She's 41 and in great shape - if she wants to show off her body, let her! I don't see how her clothing makes her any less of a capable live performer.

I do agree with you that Liz should have introduced her backing band and thanked them (and it would have been AWESOME to have Guyville's studio players back on stage), but these minor facts hardly ruined the show for me.

I'm in my early 20s now, and I keep on searching for a musician around my age who gives me as much to think about as Liz Phair does (and not just "Guyville," though that's obviously a high point). While there are some potential women (St. Vincent and Kathleen Edwards come to mind), no one has come close. Instead, I'm constantly reminded of Amy Winehouse (my age) taking horse tranquilizers and passing out somewhere.

Give me Liz Phair - with her imperfect live shows and sometimes uneven albums - any day.

For a more insightful article on current Liz, I suggest reading this excellent one by Ann Powers:

http://www.insidebayarea.com/ci_9693055

Wow this review is hilarious.
I get a strong feeling that whatever show Liz put on that night it wouldn't have mattered. You'd already made up your mind to hate not only the show but the whole idea behind the re-issue by this 'daughter of privilege'.
What? Are you her ex-boyfriend or something?
This review is way to vindictive and personal. Why did you even bother writing it?
I'll never understand the satisfaction we get in our society of watching people fall.

Hey, Canary, might I suggest PJ Harvey? I, too, cannot come up with an artist in your generation who provides food for thought (and artistry), but Polly Jean is Liz's contemporary--and superior in just about every way, as another commenter pointed out here. I love Guyville but choose to enjoy only it within the safe confines of my iPod, not Liz live or her other efforts.

To everyone that doesn't understand why this performance is getting ripped on or put under the microscope here and on pitchfork, it has to do with credibility. If you start off as an indie artist and you make something that is almost universally considered to be an honest work of art, and then you go make an album like the self-titled album which was produced by the people that make Avril Lavigne sound so garden variety and then follow it up with Somebody's Miracle, well you're on shaky ground. It calls into question her entire motives and whether or not she was even a true artist in the first place. This album meant a lot to a lot of people, and to have the entire validity of it called into question by her seeming lack of interest in it and her possibly dubious motivations for even revisiting it at all is natural. To not call it into question is to be a passive enjoyer of music, being a critic means being an analytical enjoyer of music. It's Jim's job.

It feels like betrayal. It feels like being swindled. It's one thing if an artist is britney spears from the get go, but imagine if Kim Gordon all of a sudden decided that art is too serious or hard or abrasive or not profitable enough and she wanted to do a straight up britney spears-esque pop record. People would be up in arms. It would completely taint her entire recorded output. Obviously LiZ Phair and Somebody's Miracle are different albums altogether than Exile, BUT the fact that she came off all wishy-washy and non-committed to performing THE album that many people consider her one masterpiece calls her entire career into question. From an indie purist/critic standpoint at least.

I understand jughead's points, I too felt betrayed by her in some ways but what strikes me as so weird is that doesn't seem to be exactly where Jim is coming from with his biting comments.

Why is it that there can only be one female artist who is genuine? OK...Choose from PJ, Kim Deal or Kim Gordon...done! Why is it that when talking about LP or any women in rock we only compare her to other women? There can only be one female in rock at a time. Certainly the radio is like that. Hopefully not the real music fans.

I already railed on Jim for saying MILF in a comment in the suntimes online version of this article. Just seems like he was having too much fun comparing her to someone as vapid as Paris Hilton.

Jim DeRo responds: I thought Tori Amos had reclaimed MILF as a feminist term, sorta like "girl" (or grrrl). No offense intended.

Can your wife say she's in a bitchy mood? Yes. Can you call her a bitch? Didn't think so...Tori can reclaim, but you?
I mean you just said in a huge newspaper you want to F*** Liz P?
:)
Oh well.

I see your point, and I suppose I didn't think out the meaning of the acronym -- that is, yeah, sure, I know what it means, but I personally DO NOT want to f*** Liz Phair. Beth Ditto, yes. Liz Phair, not so much, not now, and not when she was doing the gratuitous crotch shot thing in OPTION back in the day. I never got the Liz as postfeminist in charge of selling my own sexuality thing. My point, obviously mangled, was that she is still selling her sexuality. And it's like, hey, what else ya got?

Well, in that case I sort of agree...I was always surprised the degree to which she used her looks. I mean, of course she can do whatever she wants, I just didn't think she needed to use her looks THAT much. If at all. It would have been cool if she blew that part off. Of course that is also where I think she and Courtney both (OK I said CL's name) lost their way...too much time spent on the surface. It's sad they feel they have to, and it's great Beth Ditto is loud and proud in so many ways.

I think Ann Powers' article does a nice job of nailing why Exile is meaningful.

Jim DeRo responds: Here's my friend Ann's article: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-ca-lizphair22-2008jun22,0,370344.story

You know, I have to admit that I really liked Exile in Guyville, because I was just at the right age and music developmental stage to need that record - an angry woman rocker saying what the young teen girl me wanted to say. I was just getting into rock, I was just old enough to buy albums and go to concerts, and she was right here in Chicago, and frankly there weren't a lot of other women around to look up to in that way. I guess what I've always found disappointing about Liz Phair is that it seems like she never followed through on the promise of that album, either in subsequent albums or in concert. Her music got poppier, lyrics got dumber, and she's never been that great in concert anyway. And I can't help but question the credibility of women who wear stilettos to play a show.

Hoorah and About Time. At last, and objective local writing on this pathetic local has-been/never-was. In case you've not noticed, Chicago is looked upon around the country as a town incapable of being objective when it comes to their residents. Liz Phair was NEVER of interest nationally, and was only popular within this 90 mile radius. Why spend such time revisiting a piece of work done 15 years ago? Oh, that's right....every single thing she has touched since has been terrible. How pathetic Liz is. Why is it the EVERY SINGLE record company has dropped her after the initial deal was completed? Maybe because she was an ALMOST one hit wonder (IF that). Chicago, stop hanging on to the absurd dream that a local 'made it'. It wasn't Liz Phair, local loser. Liz, GO AWAY!

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This page contains a single entry by Jim DeRogatis published on June 24, 2008 9:26 PM.

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