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Have Liz and Natalie Lost It?

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The online e-zine Flak has some very unkind words about the recent new CDs by Liz Phair and Natalie Merchant:

Liz Phair and Natalie Merchant seem to want to trade places. Merchant, who has had numerous hits and enviable album sales with 10,000 Maniacs and as a solo artist, left her label, Elektra, last August to form her own, Myth America Records. “Natalie Merchant has stepped off the pop treadmill,” the New York Times announced in March, with no argument from the singer. The House Carpenter’s Daughter is her label’s first offering, and it indicates Merchant’s willingness to settle into middle age as an indie doyenne, producing personal albums and supporting them on her own dime.

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Merchant’s voice–consonant-averse, non-physical, confrontational, angry tones–is unique, to be sure, and beloved by many. But when the songs are weak and the production uneven–on the bulk of Ophelia, for example–her voice operates as an anesthetic. Conversely, when song and production are tailored to Merchant’s open, gentle tones, the result is “Birds and Ships” from 1998’s Mermaid Avenue, where her smooth reading deepens the song’s meaning. It’s like Brad Pitt: As long as the script is strong and the direction sure-handed, the one-note gesticulating and vocal flatness are less apparent, even suitable.

No such luck on The House Carpenter’s Daughter. It may be the fault of song choice–none of the numbers Merchant culled from various folk catalogs gives off any sparks. “Soldier, Soldier,” a tale of a woman’s failed efforts to marry a man before the war, is complemented by a swampy, fuzzed-guitar groove straight from a Tom Waits session; “Crazy Man Michael,” about a man doomed by prophecy to take his lover’s life, is imbued with honeyed guitar and organ work; “Owensboro,” a working woman’s lament, features acoustic guitar and banjo-picking you might find on any of a dozen clichéd Southern porches. These tracks are produced with eclecticism and style, but through it all is the limp sameness of Merchant’s voice.

Phair’s voice, though, was once a great asset–wobbly and tart, perfect for her tossed-off randy lyrics, such as on Whip-Smart’s “Supernova,” where she informs lover du jour that “you fuck like a volcano and you’re everything to me.” Producers the Matrix–Lauren Christy, Graham Edwards and Scott Spock by name–couldn’t care less. They’ve enhanced Phair’s voice on the four tracks they contribute, robbing it of all the frayed edges that make it interesting by plopping her down into slick, empty pop songs. Phair does not survive the makeover. Thickly metallic, ornery guitars give way to the worst lyrics ever to appear on a Liz Phair album. The major offender is “Favorite,” a comparison of a tried-and-true relationship to Phair’s bestest briefs. “You’re like my favorite underwear, it feels just right, you know it,” she actually sings as the guitars blaze. “You feel like my favorite underwear, and I’m slipping you on again tonight.”

Phair’s album is little more than a cry for attention and a longing for the fountain of youth, particularly on “Rock Me,” where she extols the virtues of humping young guys. “I wanna play Xbox on your floor,” she informs the 20-something stud, a wan lyric in a song rife with them. These lyrics are presented at face value, without her usual irony, which will no doubt shock and sadden her fans. If, as she claims in the song, you don’t even know who she is, the lyric is merely uninspired, tired.

Doesn’t exactly make you want to click on over and order either one, huh?

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About Ed Driscoll