By MARK GUARINO
Daily Herald Music Critic
Liz Phair was always an awkward rock star. She arrived in 1993 to a red carpet of critical praise for a debut album that played with gender roles, switching rock’s time-honed sexual swagger from the man to the woman.
But that was in the studio. Live, the former Chicagoan rarely delivered the goods. Her critics complained she was a rudimentary guitarist and a flat singer. Not much has changed.
Except now the bar is raised since Phair is currently in the process of making the biggest gamble of her career. With her self-titled fourth album, she hired a hitmaking songwriting team to get her songs on commercial radio and embarked on a marketing campaign where she makes no apologies for wanting to get ont eh charts by every means necessary. Which translates to making her song-writing conform to sound like everything else on the charts.
At her 70-minute homecoming show at Metro Thursday – the first of three sold-out nights – Phair played with dry professionalism. Backed by a lethargic four-member band that looked like they had to wake up for a test the next morning, the 36-year-old played a 19-song setlist that featured mostly older songs. “Most of these … were written here — it’s crazy,” she said.
The look backwards was abbreviated when she introduced only a handful of new songs. If you closed your eyes and didn’t know any better, the difference was obvious. Without the bombastic studio production, the songs sounded thin. They were expertly crafted with stop/start segments and featured big, obvious hooks with empty-headed choruses — “baby, baby, baby, if it’s all right/rock me all night” was one, “I am just your ordinary, average, everyday, san/psycho super-goddess” went another — that were tough to sing with a straight face live. No wonder she had to smile. If homogenous mediocrity was Phair’s goal, she succeeded.
With the perspective of 10 years or less, some older songs (“Never Said,” “Help Me Mary”) proved their durability as rugged rockers. But the sexual danger and mystery that made Phair so unique was diluted not just by the juvenilia of her recent popcraft, but by the bored performances. As is the custom with “Flower,” she brought up a young female fan for a duet. The song — championing a certain carnal act — was once about sexual power and release. In this version, it had all the audacity of two women at a bachelorette party, giddy at having to say all those naughty words.