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Kinder, Gentler? No. Deeper

Pop Beat: Liz Phair has become a mom since her crackling debut five years ago, but she's retained her aggressive attitude while becoming a more complex songwriter.

September 26, 1998|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

There were times during Liz Phair's concert Thursday at the Mayan Theatre that the spitfire singer-songwriter's first tour in three years seemed reminiscent of the Sex Pistols' 1996 reunion dates.

The difference is Phair still has something to say.

During Phair's hour performance, several of the songs from Phair's acclaimed debut album, 1993's "Exile in Guyville," felt every bit as revolutionary--and, surprisingly, as dated--as such late-'70s Pistols anthems as "God Save the Queen" and "Anarchy in the U.K."

Where the Pistols attacked the conservative trappings of corporate rock with a snotty arrogance and punk-rock fury that opened a door for a generation of marvelous new bands, Phair's sometimes R-rated songs demonstrated in "Exile" that women could effectively play what for decades had been strictly a man's game: sex-driven, confrontational rock 'n' roll.

In tunes, such as "Flower" and "F--- and Run," which talked about sexual politics and desire with more graphic language than even the bad-boy Rolling Stones had ever dared, Phair played a pivotal role in preparing the pop-rock world for a generation of women who also had the confidence and talent to express themselves with a captivating boldness.

The reason those "Exile" tunes seemed Thursday as vintage as the Pistols' classics is a testimony to the remarkable creative outburst of female artists over the last five years. In a pop age that includes such valuable and independent artists as Alanis Morissette, Ani DiFranco, Courtney Love, Polly Jean Harvey and Fiona Apple, the "Exile" songs seem like part of a quaint, earlier period.

When many in the Mayan crowd called out for some of the "Exile" songs, it felt more in the sense of nostalgia than in the desire to hear something truly relevant or vital.

That's why, even though Phair and her four-piece band played nearly half the "Exile" songs, the high points of the evening were the songs from Phair's new album, "whitechocolatespaceegg."

This album and tour follows a three-year career break during which Phair was married and gave birth to a son--and both her new music and her Mayan performance showed signs of growth.

What was most obvious Thursday was that Phair, who has long struggled with stage fright, seemed wonderfully at ease. She joked with members of her band and the audience frequently during the evening, and sang with a new self-assurance.

The new songs, too, tend to be more revealing and multidimensional than the "Exile" songs, whose strengths were tied in large extent to their cleverness and daring.

"I'm a complicated communicator," Phair declares in "Big Tall Man," a song from the new album that she didn't perform Thursday--and it's fair warning.

In such wonderfully tuneful numbers as "Uncle Alvarez" and "Polyester Bride," Phair steps back from the literal game plan of "Exile" songs to challenge listeners with word puzzles that take time to unravel.

The good news is the songs are worth the effort. These are tales about sorting through the choices in life; finding the wisdom and strength to face obligations and expectations without surrendering to or being suffocated by them. In the album's best numbers, Phair moves away from the autobiographical edges of her earlier work by frequently switching genders, characters and even point of view.

Phair gave in to the audience requests and ended the evening with "F--- and Run," but the other first encore number--the tranquil, but questioning "Perfect World," from the new album--was a more defining moment; a sign that Phair herself isn't just a model for today's great female pop-rock contingent, but still part of it.

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