So, a defiant indie rocker produces a brilliant early ’90s album that breaks ground for its lyrical frankness and its adept merger of Rolling Stones-style aggression and sexual bluntness. She produces another couple albums in this vein, and people generally love it — at least, the “right people” do. While such critical acclaim generally frees up artists to take more chances, this individualistic artist chooses instead to reinvent herself as a generic, highly produced pop tart — ostensibly in the name of “giving people what they want.”
She has a couple catchy hit singles, but her original fans do not come along for the ride. Finally, she releases an album that merges a caricaturized sexpot persona with a collection of wildly scattered songs ranging in tolerability from “somewhat” to “not at all,” an album with an awkward title that sums up the awkward path her career has taken: “Funstyle.” Her first Denver tour stop following that album’s release draws very few people who have come aboard during this “give the people what they want” period.
No wait, don’t discuss. Just turn back the clock 15 years, forget the wayward turns Liz Phair has taken and how you feel she’s betrayed you, and find her at the Bluebird Tuesday night. There, she fronted a four-piece band playing primarily what the audience truly wanted, and playing these songs with intensity and grit. Aside from perfunctory playthroughs of recent pop hits “Extraordinary” and “Why Can’t I?” she almost exclusively performed songs from her first three albums, “Exile in Guyville,” “Whipsmart,” and “Whitechocolatespaceegg.”
And suddenly, it sort of made sense. Phair merges the best of both worlds: the savvy, photogenic flirt dressed to make indie geeks lose themselves (and probably their indie girlfriends) in rapture, and the young girl filled with envy, recklessness, fury and longing. Phair was dressed to thrill in a fur stole, tight shirt, and shiny black skirt with a line roughly 27 inches above the knee while she sang, “I want to be cool, tall, vulnerable and luscious. I would have it all if I only had this much.” Looking at her, the envy and fury was difficult to imagine. Hearing her –and imagining her first defying social convention, then the critics who championed her — it wasn’t so hard.
While much attention has been paid to her image and her provocateur persona, so much of her appeal lies in her ability to be, as exemplified in her song by the title, mesmerizing with melody. She really is a natural pop star candidate. In the hands of major label producers, this melody can easily be distilled into sugar, stripped of content. But when used to serve real emotions and experiences, it can easily rekindle — as it did Tuesday evening — a striking time and place in popular music, when this music seemed not only raw and provocative, but also genuine and essential.
Jeremy Simon is a Lafayette freelance writer and regular contributor to Reverb.
Shawn Parker is a Denver-based freelance photographer and web developer.