Wednesday, July 13, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 888: Liz Phair

Sometimes deciding if I’m going to keep an album or sell it is a complex set of variables. This is one of those times.

Disc 888 is….Juvenilia
Artist: Liz Phair

Year of Release: 1995

What’s up with the Cover? Liz does karate in high heeled sandals. This cover looks half-finished, which is kind of how this record feels.

How I Came To Know It: I’ve liked Liz Phair for years and wasn’t even aware of this EP until about ten years ago. I bought it on a whim, since it came out during my favourite part of Phair’s career.

How It Stacks Up:  I have five Liz Phair albums. While at 8 songs and 30 minutes playing time this one is more of an EP, I’ll rank it anyway. It lands fifth (or last) place. They can’t all be winners, kids.

Ratings: 2 stars

Sometimes an EP can deliver some undiscovered gems of an artist’s early career. For example, the re-issue of the Byrd’s “Sweethearts of the Rodeo” features six bonus tracks of Gram Parsons’ previous band “The International Submarine Band” and these are great.

Other times an EP of early stuff can feel like an awkward amalgam of ideas that aren’t fully formed, by an artist that will one day be great but isn’t quite there yet. Unfortunately, this is how “Juvenilia” felt for me.

The best song on the record is the opening track, “Jealousy.” This song does a great job of capturing the manic rage of people consumed with jealousy. The rhythm rushes forward, flustered and grim and in a hurry to throw accusations before Liz even starts singing. It is a great song, but it is also available on 1994’s “Whip Smart” which I already have so we’ll call that a draw.

The second best song is “Turning Japanese,” which is a pretty great cover of the 1980 song of the same name by one-hit wonder The Vapors. Liz’s version has great energy and with its rock edge appeals to me more than the original. Is this cover enough for me to keep the album? Maybe…

Most of the record is composed of songs that Phair originally recorded in 1991 under the name “Girly Sound.” Most of these are pretty forgettable. “California” is a solid hook surrounded by Liz telling what is now a very old joke about cows. It is passable on the first listen and then it quickly becomes like any joke some drunk uncle tells you too many times at a backyard family barbecue. If it is a particularly bad uncle, there will be told too many times at a single barbecue, each time with a bit more drunk in the delivery.

Three more songs (“Batmobile,” “Dead Shark” and “Easy” are all lo-fi dirges which sound a lot like other Liz Phair songs, except not as good. There is one good track from the Girly Sound days, but more on that later.

The only original song on this album is “Animal Girl” and it is depressing even by Liz Phair standards. It features her characteristic minor key and flat delivery but it is a bit too emotionally hollow, even for her. The song has pretty bones, but it is one that needs to be surrounded by other catchier tracks, like it would be on one of her many amazing full length records. Here it just lays flat and sad, with no fury to punctuate the sadness.

So it all comes down to the best “Girly Sound” song on the record, “South Dakota” to break the tie on whether I should keep this record. Think of it as a presidential election where South Dakota’s 24 electoral college votes will make the difference.

South Dakota” has Phair’s signature sparse but echoing production value, and the whole thing is a single guitar strumming away as Liz sings her lascivious heart out, occasionally punctuating a verse with an explosive “Huh! Huh!” of air from deep in her lungs. The song also has Beck-quality imagery with bizarre lines like:

“Masons and lumberchucks
As God is my squirrel”

That somehow make sense when Liz sings it, even though I’m not sure how.

So “South Dakota” should deliver this album safely back to its seat on my CD shelf, but I’m going to withhold judgment and see what it is worth at the local record store. If I can get a few albums I like better in return, maybe it is worth voting ‘no’ after all.

Best tracks:  Jealousy, Turning Japanese, South Dakota

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