Culture Rover

#134 - Echolocation #5: The Lower Register

"Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?" - Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

From its opening riff, a cannon-shot (and canon-shot) announcement of rock arrival, Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville explodes with the power of "something new." Listening to the record now, fast approaching a fifteenth reunion with first hearing it, what is most striking about the album is the ongoing conversation between the shimmering guitar strumming and Phair's voice. It is THAT VOICE, ultimately, that makes the recording so important.

First, a few thoughts on the guitar. For such a great rock record, the whole production of the album is actually quite restrained. It is filled with lots of space, little ornamentation beyond simple touches of percussion, and a recurrent crystalline guitar sound. The guitar is trebly and high, with a tremelo or chorus effect on it as well as reverb that makes each strum sound like splashing water or ripples on the surface of a pond. One might even say that the guitar sounds feminine in its sonority.

Meanwhile, Phair's voice pushes toward the lower registers, suggesting a more complex femininity. This lower voice makes her persona on the album something stunning, a confession whispered below the music, a message spat out somewhat against the speaker's wishes, a sob of hesitancy and bravery, boldness and loathing, rage and desire, pleasure and recognition.

The interplay between the guitar and Phair's voice marks Exile's brilliance. And, of course, the lyrics themselves brought new perspectives to rock.

In the end, though, THAT VOICE is what stays with you. There is a bit of Chrissy Hynde in Phair's lower register, and maybe even vestiges of Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday. But, for the most part, THAT VOICE is Phair's alone.

It tells a story: a multi-dimensional tale about second- and third-wave feminism, about late adolescence and early adulthood, about alienation and redemption, about bleakness and postmodern angst, about wanting to be "cool, tall, vulnerable, and luscious," (as Phair wished she could be on the song "Perfect World," found on the later album, whitechocolateeggspace).

What disappears most of all on Phair's more recent albums is precisely THAT VOICE. Phair sings almost exclusively in her upper register rather than pushing down into a zone that is moving because it is not quite able to hit the notes strongly, and yet discovers new expressivity in these imperfections.

So, maybe more than the productions by the Matrix, the calculatedly provocative publicity photos, and other aspects of Phair's supposed "sell out," the disappearance of the lower register is what has made so many fans and critics lament the loss of something authentic in Phair's last few recordings.

As a musician, Phair has to move on. It is essential that she explore middle-age, with its bursts of newly-discovered self-confidence and its unforeseen feelings of profound self-doubt. And since Phair is a commercial artist, there is nothing wrong with, as she put it in one song, trying to make "Shitloads of Money" in the process.

But THAT VOICE, Phair's lower register, haunts her. And it haunts us, her listeners. We still need its exiled timbre and all the messages contained there-out.

21 December 06

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