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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Phair's Ready for Leadership Role in Rock

March 19, 1994|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Liz Phair, Take 2.

Given the timidity of the Chicago-based songwriter's show in December at the Troubadour, it's good for her that the Village Voice's annual poll to name the year's top pop act is based on recordings rather than concerts.

Phair's debut album, "Exile in Guyville," was named the best record of 1993 in the survey of 300 pop critics, but the inexperienced performer had so little presence on stage at the Troubadour that she neutralized her frequently liberating, feminist-minded looks at sexual stereotypes and roles.

Not so before a packed house Thursday night at the Palace.

Following a likable set by the Spinanes that was victimized by muddy sound, a more confident and assured Liz Phair (pronounced: fair) became Liz Phlair (you got it).

Wearing a teasing mini-skirt that telegraphed her refusal to deny her own sexuality, Phair sang and played guitar with the conviction and authority of someone who not only has learned to enjoy the spotlight, but is also ready to assume the leadership role in rock that the album suggested.

Though she is not a show-stopping singer, Phair brings an intelligence and commentary to her phrasing that accents the provocative edges in songs that challenge the male attitudes and assumptions that dominate rock.

Backed by a three-piece band that plays a highly melodic pop-rock seasoned with an occasional hint of the Stones, Phair alternated deftly between put-downs ("I bet you fall in bed too easily") to longings ("Whatever happened to a boyfriend / The kind of guy who makes love / Because he's in it").

As with most new artists, the material is uneven, but the best of it is memorable indeed--and she now showcases it with a manner that is equally seductive and smart.

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