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It's a wiser, better Phair on display

September 19, 2003|Steve Appleford | Special to The Times

Liz Phair was more than just another in a long line of indie-rock heroes when she dazzled critics and underground taste-makers with her 1993 debut album, "Exile in Guyville," a work that was smart and confessional, sex-positive and needy, understated and ambitious. She was instantly a major player; then, she slowly disappeared.

It wasn't because of marriage, motherhood and divorce but a loss of purpose that too often follows a career-defining work. What could possibly come next?

At Avalon on Wednesday, Phair offered one answer, performing songs from a new album that is her most controversial since that debut.

Phair tapped into the same sexual spark of her early days but with a modern-pop twist that has already brought the singer-songwriter critical flack and some fan disappointment.

They complain that her new album, "Liz Phair," is a calculated commercial move, that Phair has watered down her voice with a shift in content and a modern-pop influence (daring to use hit-making production team The Matrix), even suggesting an artistic identity crisis.

The truth is that while Phair may never again match the effect of "Guyville," her newest music is some of her most immediate and satisfying since then. Onstage at Avalon, she also showed herself a much improved live presence.

The 75-minute performance offered a fine mix of older and newer work, with the early song "6'1" showing an even deeper Rolling Stones vibe than the original. Phair was supported by a tight five-man band that easily bridged the sonic gap between early and modern Phair songs. She hasn't exactly abandoned her early, darker, uncertain self, but she's wise enough to understand that it's no longer 1993.

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