Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Lost Tonight

Song: Lost Tonight
Artist: Liz Phair
Album: Somebody's Miracle

It is widely known that depending on how much money is spent advertising and marketing an album, the better it will do. Also, the artists image, street cred, etc. plays into how well a song or album will perform. For the most part, you have to believe that where the artist is coming from is genuine. Back in the early 90's Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer had much success with their pop-rap (hip-hop) records, sold millions and traveled the world. Then came gangster rap, Suge Knight held Vanilla out a window when he started talking about his (questionable) street cred, and once the pop-rap thing wasn't working MC Hammer dropped the "MC," went gangster, and soon EVERYONE was laughing at him. Sometimes you have to change with the times, yet you have to keep grounded with your audience and be sure to not let them start thinking that you've lost your mind.

In 1993 Liz Phair's debut independent release on Matador records, "Exile in Guyville," a song by song response to the Rolling Stones "Exile on Main Street" took the indie rock world by storm, ultimately sold over 400,000 copies (unheard of for an indie release,) and topped tha majority of critics "best of" lists at the end of the year. It was a lo-fi emotional tour-de-force that matched catchy guitar rock with brazen shock-slut lyrics. She appeared in a slip on the cover of Rolling Stone and started the path that was taken by diverse female singer songwriters such as Julianna Hatfield, Hole, and the Breeders. Her follow up, "Whip-Smart" was distributed by Atlantic Records and was greeted with an overwhelming amount of hype. She scored a top ten Modern Rock hit with first single "Supernova" but the album underperformed, was ultimately considered a disappointment, and Phair retreated from music to get married and have a child.

I got "Whip-Smart" in my Senior year of High School and immediately fell in love. I was starting to move away from pop music and Liz filled my number one slot for female singer-songwriters. She was edgy, different, and yet the music was catchy with sing-a-long choruses that my pop loving self couldn't get enough of. Afterward I got "Exile" and was again blown away with her off-color lyrics but also her very flat-toned voice which wrapped her words around off beat arrangements. While not pretty by American Idol standards, her voice seemed real, and helped connect the emotional content of the lyrics. Songs like "Divorce Song," "Nashville," "Never Said," and "Fuck and Run" burned with emotional honestly. She was up-front, direct, and it felt like she was sitting in my room on my bed having a conversation with me. I was in love.

In 1988 her much delayed third album , "Whitechocolatespaceegg" was released and once again she was ushered back by the indie world, topped a bunch of critic lists, and again... didn't sell very well. Personally, while I liked much of the record, I found it hard since I was in college, to connect with these story-songs about childbirth, marriage, and how hard the two can be together. The melodies were there, and I played a ton out of it... but I always thought that someday, down the line as I got older, that I would play the record and it would be an emotional revelation. It's a record about a very specific moment and time in life... and I just wasn't there.

For Liz, everything soon would change. She toured with Lilith Fair and famous female musician friends like Sarah McLachlan and Sheryl Crow were selling millions and making a ton of money. The Lilith generation came and went and the pop landscape was something altogether different. Alanis Morissette, who took Phair's blueprint for "confessional female rock" and saw the most sales was even having trouble getting people to buy her records. Teen actors were finding success as pop-rock queens (Hillary Duff/Avril Levine) So Liz decided to change things up a bit. In 2003 Liz released her forth album, the self titled "Liz Phair" on Capitol. The subsequent media blitz was a shock to me personally, and I suppose Liz herself as she watched her fans who had stuck with her, turn on her and call her a sell out. For the album she enlisted the help of songwriting team The Matrix who had had huge success with the aforementioned Levine, and Duff. The new record was a slick pop-rock affair with lighter lyrics and hooks to spare. The indie world was angry and I read article after article of how Liz had done the worst thing an indie rock chick could possibly do... try to be successful.

Based on the mild success of lead single "Why Can't I" "Liz Phair" was a moderate success, not matching "Exile" but beating "Whip-Smart." She toured relentlessly, did just about every promotional concert she was asked to do and yet her sales just couldn't compete with the young pop stars whose audience she was hoping to borrow for a bit. A huge section of her current fan-base walked out on her and subsequently, last year's follow up "Somebody's Miracle" made almost zero sales impression, selling just over 60,000 copies.

Now I am a guy that takes things as they come. I've watched my old favorite band R.E.M. make three disappointing albums in a row. I bought all of them, wanted to like them, yet multiple listens proved that the old magic had faded, and they went back on the shelf. As it is evident from this blog, I am not opposed to pop music, and while I saw the definite shift in her music, I really dug Liz's new music... and liked the self titled album better than "Whitechocolatespaceegg." I also really like "Somebody Miracle" and thought it was one of the better records of 2005. According to Liz, "Miracle" is a response to Stevie Wonder's "Songs in the Key of Life." I don't quite get it... but then again I don't know that album very well.

So what happened here? Why had the indie audience turned on her so hard? Well... I think people are robots. They listen to what they are told, and as soon as their hipster-indie blogs started writing scathing reviews of Liz's new sound, the throng listened, despite the fact that they hadn't actually listened to the record. So yes, she went with a pop sound that wasn't as lyrically complex as earlier material, and the production was brought up a notch... much more polished. But my argument has always been that Liz is an artist whose music has always been about what her life is about at that point. So yes she was young and navigating relationships during "Exile" and dealing with motherhood and marriage on "Whitechocolatespaceegg," so for "Liz Phair" she was newly divorced, dating a younger man, and living in glam-glam Los Angeles. OF COURSE the music is going to be different.

"Lost Tonight" is great example of what Liz's music is now. It's a sweet rock ballad written about love by a woman who has seen it, done it, and understands it. Old Liz might pour her entire self into a big dumb guy only to have him cast her off, yet new Liz... who's just as direct as old Liz says "I want to get lost tonight with you" but yet cautiously follows that with "Let me know if it's alright that I do." The album is filled with more knowing ruminations on love and it's aftermath.

I feel like Liz Phair is some sort of indie-rock cautionary tale and an example of how fickle people are in general. The new music holds up to the old and if people could look past all the inane blog posts (ha-ha) and the marketing or lack of, they will find some killer female singer-songwriter rock music. I feel like Liz is at the top of her game, she just needs the audience to follow her.


As there wasn't one video made for a song on "Somebody's Miracle" I want to highlight the very fun clip for "Why Can't I," her biggest hit. The concept was recently used by Morningwood for their single "Nth Degree," and had also been done by Cornershop for their "Brimful of Asha" video.

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