[7 November 2010]
“I’m Liz Phair, and I’m a PC,” says the cheesy computer desktop gracing the most controversial work from the Chicago-raised toughie since, uh, her last one.
This is at least what that M.I.A.-ish album cover says by accompanying this weird, beautiful statement of an album that begins with Phair smashing genres together like toy trains and trying her hand at spoken word. The woman is a lot of things, regardless of what machine she uses to stalk old mistakes online. An album this reflective of her complexities is overdue, and, on first listen, it’s as if individual hot flashes through her career were glimpses of what was to come: her self-titled album’s notorious pornfest “H.W.C.” would have been so perfect here.
Word on the street says Funstyle is a half hour of Phair asking loudly for permission to clear her throat. Initially, Funstyle does feel like a radical departure with hip-hop swagger. Just look at the album titles leading up to now: Liz Phair. Somebody’s Miracle. Funstyle. Her last effort to come without some degree of critical button pushing was 1998’s brilliant guest-a-palooza whitechocolatespaceegg, and Funstyle is undoubtedly the best thing since.
It’s not all Beastie Girl piss takes, however: In fact, after the initial sucker punch of “Smoke” and the M.I.A.-ish “Bollywood” (seriously, how has Maya not written a song with that title yet?), a lot of Funstyle sounds decidedly less confrontational, if not conventional. “Miss September” is more like it for Phair phans who embraced 2003’s Liz Phair and thought Exile in Guyville was too quirky. Still, suggestive one-liners like “I’ll sleep with your prize inside of me” are unabashed Guyville residents, and even that song ends with an unexplained sharp scratching noise that would have been quickly edited on a more polished release.
Some of this is simply impossible to take seriously, but those tracks have a perverse way of strengthening the album rather than detracting from it. Phair wouldn’t have it any other way. “The Beat Is Up” is batshit insane; on top of a popcorn beat, she imitates a caffeinated cliché-spitter who’s a few beans short of a full grande latte (“I definitely like the ginseng / And the ginko…balboa?”) in between mock nuggets of wisdom from a low-rent Maharishi. As an olive branch, the more palatable “And He Slayed Her” follows with a slow chug and Phair’s sweetly biting triple-tracked vocals, recalling the point where her artistic, creative, and commercial potential were all getting along instead of fighting for control of the car radio. The lyrics on the album aren’t as comfy, though. On the boss-bashing “Slayed Her”, she’s in rare form, lashing out at former label Capitol from every angle and all but disowning her previous two records. Along those lines, the best jokes Phair offers up are to two suits massaging each other’s corporate egos about her marketability on “U Hate It”.
To solidify the vibe that this is so not Somebody’s Miracle, those who buy Funstyle the old fashioned way are rewarded with a bonus disc of her earliest recordings under the name Girlysound. Even in embryonic songs like “Speed Racer”, there’s Liz’s trademark warts-and-all sweetness that seems to circle the ears instead of going straight in. They also seem remarkably well put together, every one of them, even with the dull shine of unearthed treasure. While Girlysound has the more consistent tone—even when taking on the necrophilia victim of all cover songs, “Wild Thing”—Funstyle‘s jaggedness makes it more of a rollercoaster ride.
Girlysound is worthy on its own, but there’s no cake icing needed for Funstyle. The conventional rockers are fun; the three-minute middle fingers, even funner. I’m personally shocked it took her this long to spoof very specific subgenres like defiant Dr. Luke pop (“My My”). The disc’s diversity shouldn’t surprise, as Phair has always been a chameleon. Putting out albums on Matador and Capitol, garnering praise and criticism from all types of music geeks, she’s back on that Girlysound tip since she realized putting out slick records felt more like just putting out. Yeah, Phair puts on a few jokey voices that remind us why we hated Eminem’s Encore, but this is some of the most immediately hooky pop in recent memory from any artist, pop or sub-pop, and it’s great to have her as a leftfield contender for the end-of-year album lists (which, even in the age of shuffle, remain the best cure for the post-holiday blues…is it almost that time already?).
“It’s nice to take a detour sometimes,” she sings on “Satisfied”, before launching into a Big Liz Phair Chorus between wincing at old memories that haunt her as much as “Why Can’t I?” does to the rest of us. Very nice, it turns out.