Sound Effects spent Friday evening at the first of Liz Phair's two sold-out shows at the Paradise. Here's the review that will run in tomorrow's Boston Globe. Read it and weep.
When alt-rock icon Liz Phair launched her extreme pop makeover in 2003, she made it clear to anyone with a reporter’s notebook that the disgruntled indie-nation could take their business elsewhere. She had changed. Phair didn’t want cred; she wanted a hit. Whatever you made of her value system, her candor was refreshing.
Now Phair is on the road performing her seminal 1993 album “Exile in Guyville,” begging a big question. Is the artist, facing down middle age at 41, feeling moved to reconnect with the young woman who turned her bravado and bewilderment into one of alternative rock’s beloved manifestos? Or is she enjoying a marketing opportunity, complete with a 15th anniversary deluxe reissue and and new DVD?
The answer is not the one fans were hoping for. The disconnect between the tanned, smiling woman on stage at the Paradise and the wry, raw songs she was singing was massive, all the more because the songs have held up so well. Ingenious chord changes, clever lyrics, the sheer range of moods and textures -- from the swaggering rock of “6’1” and eerie meditations like “Shatter” to indie torch (“Canary”) and AP grunge (“Strange Loop”) -- make “Guyville” a great listen 15 years after its installation as a cultural/feminist touchstone.
Phair served it up like a good hostess. She was gracious to a fault, cheerful and attentive, accompanied by a lean, crisp three-piece that played hi-fi approximations of the album’s scrappy riffs. Nobody expected Phair to recreate the work in its original coarse glory. For starters, she knows how to sing in tune now. And her aesthetics have shifted dramatically, from crude and contrary to glossy and accessible. The show – the first of two sold-out dates at the club -- wasn’t a séance to bring back the former Liz Phair.
But Phair denied her followers (and herself?) the pleasures and the insights that can come when a mature musician revisits an early, defining work. She chattered on, but had little to say between songs, and none of it reflected on the music or its resonance unless you count her straw poll to figure out how many people have had sex to “Exile in Guyville.”
Phair was dressed provocatively, in skimpy shorts and tall boots. She looked hot. But she felt cold, and in a way that’s a fair tribute to the messed-up sexuality Phair chronicles on “Guyville.” Yet the commanding emotional subtext was all but missing. There were only a handful of gripping moments during the 75-minute set. During “Dance of the Seven Veils,” a cutting duet for electric guitars, Phair stopped grinning at the audience and turned inward. Her playing grew languid and distorted, and the tone of her voice changed, subtly but powerfully, from low and flat to chillingly numb. Folksy “Explain It To Me” was re-imagined as a rough, fluid wash of sound, and Phair let the musical tides move her.
Maybe a few more fresh arrangements would have provided the inspiration that simple resurrection did not. Phair was much more involved in the one new song she performed -- alongside “May Queen,” “Chopsticks,” and “Polyester Bride” -- during the encore. Sadly, the tune is a clunker, a rootsy rock tune with CCR vibe and a refrain that goes “Ding dong the witch is dead.” Phair’s new album is due out on ATO, Dave Matthews’ label, later this year. It’s hard to imagine anyone is waiting with bated breath.
About Sound Effects
ContributorsSarah Rodman is a staff music critic for the Boston Globe.
James Reed is a staff music critic for the Boston Globe.
Jonathan Perry is the Globe's Scene & Heard columnist, covering local music.
Michael Brodeur is the assistant arts editor for the Boston Globe, covering pop music, TV, and nightlife.
Julian Benbow is a staff writer at the Boston Globe, covering sports and music.
Katie McLeod is Boston.com's features editor.
Rachel Raczka is a producer for Lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment at Boston.com.
Emily Wright is an Arts & Entertainment producer at Boston.com.