Sunday, July 23, 2017

Certain Songs #940: Liz Phair – “Uncle Alvarez” | Medialoper

Album: whitechocolatespaceegg
Year: 1998

After failing to catch lightning in a bottle a second time with 1994’s good-not-great Whip-Smart, Liz Phair changed direction completely with 1998’s transitory whitechocolatespaceegg, which abandoned the low-fi sound of her first two records for a more slick, Scott Litt-produced approach.

This sounds like I’m winding up towards an insult, but actually, quite the opposite. I really liked whitechocolatespaceegg. It was the closest thing to traditional singer-songwriter album she’s ever produced, but retained some of the musical weirdness that marked her first two albums. The lyrical themes expanded beyond love and sex, and she was writing about characters and situations that clearly weren’t autobiographical.

Like “Uncle Alvarez,” which slowly drifts upon a bed of acoustic guitars and percussion occasionally augmented by what might even be a drum machine, where Liz invents an entire backstory for a portrait hanging in a hallway.

He’s not really part-Cherokee Indian
He didn’t fight in the Civil War
He’s just Eugene Isaac Alvarez
We feel sorry for the wall

But, of course, the thing about “Uncle Alvarez” is an absolutely lovely and completely indelible chorus that anchors the song.

Oh, oh, oh imaginary accomplishments
Hey, hey, hey you visionary guy
You might even shake the hands of presidents
You’re gonna make ’em sorry when you die

What I liked about “Uncle Alvarez” and other story/character songs like “What Makes You Happy” and “Big Tall Man” was how she was able to take the same level of detail and specificity that made something like “Divorce Song” so powerful and apply it to other situations.

To me, that signaled growth, and would lead into a long, fruitful career where she’d put out a record of smart, well-observed, and slightly weird songs every few years until she’d built up an amazing catalog.

And while that didn’t happen — she instead set her sights for pop stardom with, ahem, mixed results — I’m still holding out hope that she can recover if not the magic then the craft someday. Maybe the album she recently recorded with Ryan Adams will be the one.

“Uncle Alvarez”

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