Funstyle (Rocket Science Ventures)
by Scott Deckman
When Liz Phair unexpectedly released a new album online – Funstyle – this July, some dismissed it as a joke. It wasn’t, and after a break-up with ATO Records (who was to originally put it out), she’s not only giving it a proper release on Rocket Science Ventures, but even more importantly (for me and legions of others), saw fit to add on a version of the legendary Girlysound tapes. Funstyle is a weird combination of beats, electronics, piano, pop, and satire, in some ways similar to the Kinks’ “Denmark Street,” only from a different angle and spread over much of an album. While some of this is embarrassing (Liz Phair raps!) and a failed joke attempt (okay, some of it is funny… a little), there are at least a couple decent songs on the record. “Bang! Bang!” features ambient piano and programmed beats, while “Satisfied” shows off some of her trademark sass and Rolling Stones worship.
But I’m going to focus on Girlysound, her collection of home demos that led to her signing to Matador Records, which, of course, later released the landmark Exile in Guyville in 1993. Since there were many songs to choose from, Phair actually consulted her fans on which 10 to include. This is Liz Phair at her most basic without embellishment. My only complaint is that she didn’t include three more songs from Juvenilia (“Dead Shark” and “Easy” especially), her pastiche EP which was released after 1994’s Whip-Smart. It would have made a good record a great one. On to the record itself. Both “Miss Mary Mack” and “White Babies” show her penchant for embodying disparate characters with whom she shares absolutely nothing in common – other than humanity. “Miss Mary Mack, Puerto Rican black,” needs $20,000 for more drugs so she can keep reaching for the sky while riding the “white-line highway,” and Phair tells her story with that odd detachment she used to be famous for. The song features wit, an odd structure, and something else: Her underrated guitar strumming. It’s the chord progressions that count. There’s also her hypnotizing multitracked background vocals thrown in for good, trippy measure.
On “White Babies” she explores the art of black market baby dealing, and makes a serious crime sound fun. Her guitar sound on this song is quite amazing, and again, it was always her secret weapon, dirty lyrics and deadpanned delivery notwithstanding. Other highlights include “In Love With Yourself,” a diary entry come to life amid her tuneful strumming, and “California,” which oddly was the one track from Juvenilia she did include. While a good tune, it wasn’t one of the top-tiered songs from that collection. Oh well, she has her own logic. The remake of the Troggs’ “Wild Thing” was a bit unnecessary, while “Valentine” and “Love Song” just miss, the former because it highlights her lack of vocal range, the latter because it just goes on too long.
All in all though, this is a good statement that showed why Matador was so hot to sign her almost two decades ago. While I don’t fancy the lead disc – she proved with 2005’s Somebody’s Miracle she could write a mature version of her earlier bawdy work without resorting to parody, the second is recommended for Liz Phairophiles and anyone who likes confessional storytelling sans effects, and that unique guitar sound. Since they come as a packaged set, you gotta purchase one to get the other. Girlysound is certainly worth the price of admission, as it captures the budding of a unique talent.