08 July 2010

for those who think life is unphair

hahahahahaha. liz phair! is back (again)! so, i learned via p4k yesterday morning about the existence of this new album that nobody was anticipating. the pre-posterior-ious screen-shot cover art (below) strongly suggests that some pretty serious levels of in(s)anity might be contained within, and, kind of impressively, it does not disappoint in the slightest.

and as far as i'm concerned neither does the album itself. of course, an abrupt, unannounced online release like this, particularly from an artist as unpredictable and inscrutable (and, at least until recently, as widely written-off) as liz, doesn't exactly set up too many expectations to disappoint in the first place. i had actually been looking mildly, vaguely forward to new liz material since seeing her perform exile in guyville two summers back, when it sorta seemed like her prodigal-return-to-indie-rank'n'file was just around the corner. but even so i was pleasantly surprised when i downloaded the thing and found out how utterly breezily easy it was to enjoy.

funstyle indeed!

granted, i'm probably more tolerant than most of goofy "experimental" nonsense; i can readily see how the stupid-stupid satirical spoken skits and bits could be pretty grating, but i am still pretty amused by them at this point (is that supposed to be a sarah palin impression on "beat is up"?) i guess i've always sort of liked liz the most at her weirdest (esp. on whitechocolatespaceegg, easily my favorite of her albums, which was definitely a grower, and which this reminds me of a fair amount), plus i generally really enjoy exploring and dissecting weird, ballsy, left-field projects like this (808s and heartbreak comes to mind, as does rebirth), which tend to more than make up in personality what they sacrifice in tastefulness. and plus i guess i'm just a fan. but regardless; it's easy to see how much fun she had with this thing, and, at least as important, a lot of the songs are dang catchy!

so it was kind of dismaying to refresh p4k tonight and see this blunt pan of the album, which feels like it misses the point in a way i don't expect from the site (esp. from doug wolk, a writer i like.) i can't complain too much about the review being a snap judgment, despite the fact that he can't have had more than four days to write it – after all i've only listened to it four or five times, all today. but: whereas funstyle feels not only like a great vein for phair to be mining right now, but also an almost pitch-perfect response/corrective to the charges critics (and p4k in particular) leveled against her last two albums – it's spontaneous, messy, uncalculated, pointedly uncommercial, etc. – this review feels like a continuation of exactly the same kinds of criticism – that she's fucking around and basically squandering her talent, albeit in a different mode this time – and reads like yet more overreactive punishment for not doing what she should be doing.

context is important, naturally. the infamous liz phair 0.0 was obviously based on a(n emotional) reaction to an aesthetic move that was perceived as invalid, rather than an objective critical assessment of the musical quality. by contrast, amy phillips' 2.0 review of somebody's miracle was a good deal more honest and considered about its biases (and tbh i have never heard that album, though i kinda want to now), which made its musical criticisms all the more pointed. but this review of funstyle (a 2.6) veers in the opposite direction; it seems to actively ignore the context of liz phair's career trajectory and the critical response thereto, and to focus instead on critiquing the music, in a way which feels awfully nit-picky for an off-beat oddity like this – whatever it may be, funstyle is obviously not shooting straightforwardly for some objective, uncomplicated idea of "good music," so why judge it on those terms?

[aside: if phair deserved the knee-jerk vitriol that accompanied the stylistic shift of self-titled album (which of course she didn't), doesn't she deserve some accolades from the indie powers that be for this shift back into realm of artsy personal expression? (well, no, not that neither, but turnabout=fairplay?)]

i mean, i may respectfully disagree with wolk about "satisfied" being "conventionally cruddy" – fair enough if he thinks so (i find it decently catchy, if admittedly conventional – though in this context the very notion of "conventional" is undermined right off the bat in a way that makes it sort of unconventional anyway.) as for his talk of bad arrangements and unjustified lyrical conceits, i just wonder who cares, esp. given the unapologetically unpolished nature of the album – i suppose these things might start to bother me at some point, but a few listens in they're hardly disruptive enough to be noticeable. but when he calls the album's four "key tracks" (an odd designation) "horrible on just about every conceivable level" that just seems small-minded. for one, they're very, very far from being boring – that much feels undeniable to me. as formalist experiments they're at least intriguing (the approach being a weird conflation of rap-album-style skits and "proper" songs.) most of them have at least one decent hook tucked in among their weirdness/hokeyness/vapidity. but more to the point, as horrible (i'd probably just say negligible) as they may be as songs, they seem at the very least effective (that is, not especially horrible) on the level of meta-referential set pieces establishing the loose, playful aesthetic tone and personal/narrative context of the album itself, which seems to be their primary function.

wolk rails: "this is Phair razing her image to the ground: spitting at anyone who thinks they know who "Liz Phair" is, or expects her to make Guyville VI: The Return of the Exile." but, really? what was her image again? since when has there been any clear consensus understanding of who liz phair is – hasn't she spent the past decade as one of the most divisive/inscrutable figures in indie rock? was anybody seriously still expecting her to make a guyville retread at this point, after she's spent her past two albums pissing people off by not doing that? c'mon.

besides, in many ways (as he acknowledges), this is a return to a lot of what people loved about those early albums. in fact, its blatant contrarian-ness is an absolute continuation and perfect encapsulation of a trait that has always defined her career: from the beginning and through-out her "sell-out" phase. pretty much everything about funstyle is in outrageously bad taste. but liz has never been tasteful. what the hell was "flower"? all of which makes this album a legitimate surprise that's simultaneously not at all surprising. so i guess i am disagreeing with wolk again, because this feels like a totally in-character (if not per se predictable) liz phair move.

anyhow, the chorus of "u hate it" pretty much says it all:
"oh oh, i think i'm a genius/oh oh, you're being a penius"

aw liz, where ya been so long?

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