[Rating: 2.5 stars]
In her own words, Funstyle cost Liz Phair her management, her record deal, and a lot of sleep. Listening to it costs something too. That’s as clear as Funstyle gets, an album so all over the place you won’t even bat an eye at the inspirational slogans from the guru on “Beat Is Up” – “The trick to freedom is to deny your past regrets” – or when two nameless record executives talk about who hates Phair’s work the most on the baffling “U Hate It,” a song that rhymes, “I think I’m a genius” with “You’re being a pinas/Colada, that is.”
Save the pandas; save the beluga whales. Most of all, save the redeemable songs on this album, because they deserve to be heard. The acoustic guitar-driven “Miss September” features layers of fast-picked guitar and organ drones barely audible in the background. “I’ve been in this Garden of Eden a long time/And haven’t seen Adam do a thing I understand,” Phair sings, her signature croon as sweet as ever. The end of the song, a series of hypnotic descending chords over which Phair admits “I’ve been happy, too/Every day, I want to spend my time with you,” leaves the listener hungry for more moments like this – catchy melodies carrying a sentiment built to last.
Sadly, those bright spots aren’t easy to find. Here’s a Funstyle listening tip: If you hear a drum machine, run, don’t walk, to your stereo and hit next. That way you’ll escape the opening song, “Smoke,” with its looping bassline and escalating and uncomfortably high falsetto vocals. The repeated question of “Hey, Liz, what’s in the box?” leads to Phair responding in a digitally altered, chipmunk voice, “It’s my little voice of self-doubt.” When an agent tells Phair that this song is career suicide, you might find yourself agreeing with him. You might also find yourself wishing it wasn’t a little voice of self-doubt inside that box, but a screaming voice of reason.
That feeling only grows on “Bollywood.” Over a backing track that’s as stereotypically Indian as you can get, Phair raps her take on the music industry, including a mention of her success writing for television shows – “Hey, I got a proposition for ya/How about you let me keep my profits as scorer?/Record sales are shrinking, I’m getting poorer.” As a publicity stunt, the song has been a success. As a piece of music, not so much. Like getting stuck in an elevator, “Bollywood” is something you should only have to experience once, if at all.
Phair’s trio of collaborations with Dave Matthews work, due to his pop sensibilities which help create something coherent. “You Should Know Me” finds her singing multi-part harmonies around a slow build-up of scattered guitar parts, the crescendo marked by the drum kit’s entrance. The humor, intended or otherwise, of the refrain – “You should know me better than that” – is hard to ignore, considering the schizophrenic nature of the album as a whole.
“And He Slayed Her,” another Matthews collaboration, stands out as the most rocking track on Funstyle, with some of the best lyrics as well – “What kind of kid were you when you were a kid?/What kind of man would do what you did?” With moody imagery, which includes stakes through the heart, joined with a grimy guitar tone, Phair takes back her crown as the queen of angry-woman rock, even if it’s just for three-and-a-half minutes.
That little glimpse of Phair’s past is fitting considering Funstyle is being released with Girlysound, a collection of earlier ‘90s demos. Those pre-Exile In Guyville songs are Phair’s songwriting at its finest – just her, a guitar and biting lyrics. Perhaps the dual release was meant to show how far Liz Phair has come, from fuzzy bedroom cassettes to polished studio recordings. Instead, the pairing shows all she has left behind. The great lyrics are still there, but it’s now so much harder to find them amongst the junk.