I got a copy of your new album the other day. But it's weird: when I put it on, it didn't sound like you at all. It sounded like Michelle Branch or Avril Lavigne or one of those chick singer/songwriters who were all the rage last year. What's up with that? I was confused. I mean, the reason that you're one of my all-time favorite singer/songwriters is pretty simple like, for example, Bob Dylan or Neil Young, you've always sounded like you. In the past decade or so, you've released four (and I'm counting Girlysound here) incredibly amazing albums, each one featuring well-crafted songs with smartly ramshackle arrangements full of wit, fun, life and, oh yeah, sex.
It's a great trick, Liz, and there seemed to be no reason that you couldn't pull it off forever certainly the songs are still there. "Big Tall Man" and "Uncle Alvarez" from whitechocolatespaceegg were every bit as great as "Divorce Song" or "Explain It to Me" from Exile in Guyville. Even better, the latter songs were character studies, meaning that you could write effectively about others as well. And if whitechocolatespaceegg was more produced than Whip-Smart which was more produced than Exile... even through the Bonham drums and eerie synth of the opening title track it was still pure you.
So imagine my shock and surprise that a woman who charted her own waters through the seas of Alanis & Courtney & Gwen & Britney seems threatened enough to dump her longtime producer and use Avril Lavigne's production team. The Matrix, they call themselves. Ooooh, hip, so hip. Jeeze. You know, there's a reason these people named themselves after something false and evil. And that reason has splattered itself all over your record. Even the non-Matricized songs are full of useless keyboard riffs, tacked-on guitar solos and loads and loads of overdubbed Lizclone background singers. Never before has so much work been put into making somebody sound so ordinary.
And goshdarnit Liz, don't you understand that what made you great was that you were unique? That no one else in the world sounded like you? And that you ignored Alanis and Courtney and Britney and continued to make your own records with your own sound and vision? So why try to make yourself sound like everybody else? Sure, you'd like to score a hit, and more power to you. But Avril Lavigne? Little miss punkface is a musical role model? Maybe it's just me, Liz, but in a way, I almost prefer the honest plasticness of the Britneys to the faux authenticity of the Avrils. For a 17-year-old girl, the ability to go into a studio and co-write hit songs with a bunch of studio hacks is liberating. For a woman twice that age who's already put out some timeless music, it's demeaning.
On your previous records, the arrangements felt organic, like they sprang naturally from writing and recording the song. On this record, it sounds like you just plugged your lyrics into an already finished group of arrangements. Nothing feels natural or real or true or heartfelt. It's the aural equivalent of a boob job.
With the exception of the first single "Why Can't I" which sounds like it would have been Avril's next single had she asked first, all of the Matrix cuts are utter crap. But the nadir is an abomination called "Rock Me," where over guitars so generic they come with black type on a white label, you're asking "Baby" to "Rock me all night." Ew. This from the woman who sang "And the license said/ You had to stick around until I was dead/ But if you're tired of looking at my face I guess I already am."
Remember the band X? Remember those first four albums: Los Angeles through More Fun in the New World? Each one a little slicker, but each one sounding wholly like X. Then they got, something, I dunno, indignant that they weren't bigger stars, and made an album that reflected the hard rock sounds of the day. It was really so bad that you couldn't even call it a sellout. They lost their old fans and didn't attract any new ones. What a disaster.
I see a huge parallel here: you've always rightfully wanted to be bigger than you are, but people from Courtney Love to the White Stripes have found ways to make their music more accessible to the masses while still retaining what made them themselves in the first place.
Oh, and Liz, this isn't about indie-rock dogma. That's been stupid for two decades. This isn't about going for a big audience or MTV or radio play. You deserve all of the success in the world. This is about the fact that your new record is just fucking boring. And you're way, way, WAY better than that.
'Cos my editor likes us to say nice things about the albums we write about (if there's something nice to say), I'll point out the two good songs: "It's Sweet," with the sitar-ish opening and irresistible chorus, and "H.W.C.," your happiest and funniest fucksong since "Fuck or Die." Needless to say, the Matrix people are nowhere to be found anywhere near these two songs. There may be others buried under the production dogpile, so I'm hoping that you or somebody who loves you leaks some demos or acoustic versions to Furthur or Kaazaa some time soon.
Sigh. Now you're probably gonna hate me or something, but it's ironic that you've self-titled an album that completely buries your individuality. Perhaps you should have called it Inclusion in Mainstream.