Review: Liz Phair’s “Exile In Guyville” (15th Anniversary Edition)

  Liz Phair’s 1993 debut, “Exile In Guyville” is not only one of the nineties’ biggest alternative classics alongside such landmarks as Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” Radiohead’s “OK Computer,” Portishead’s “Dummy,” Green Day’s “Dookie,” and Smashing Pumpkins’ “Siamese Dream,” it’s also one of the best albums ever recorded.  Recently, Phair has seemingly been on a quest to dominate the pop world.  While her lyrics have remained as detailed as ever, her glossy production has made her sound more like Sheryl Crow’s foul-mouthed sister. 

You can’t blame her for wanting to keep her contract.  Around the time of her third full-length album, “Whitechocolatespaceegg,” her label Matador hooked up a distribution deal with Capitol.  When the deal dissolved a few years later, Phair found herself stuck on Capitol’s roster.  Her next two records were still enjoyable with a lot of her signature touches, but they lacked the intensity of her low-fi beginnings. 

Thankfully, Phair’s contract with Capitol has now ended and she is now signed to Dave Matthews’ surprisingly hip indie, ATO.  A new album is due soon, but in the meantime the label has decided wisely to reissue “Guyville” with three bonus tracks and a lengthy DVD documentary.  If all you know about Liz Phair is based on her recent output, please prepare to be schooled. 

The press around “Guyville” when it was first released fixated on Phair’s claim that it was a song-by-song response to the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street.”  The tie between the two records is extremely loose.  Phair, herself on the DVD admits that the songs’ connection to each other only makes sense to her.  Later on in the film she discusses how when she finally met Mick Jagger a few years back, he said he “forgave” her for “Guyville,” as if it were some sort of rip-off.  If this story is true, I doubt Jagger ever actually heard her record.  Despite Phair’s claim of inspiration, “Guyville” is a strikingly unique, complex and original record.  To shortchange it is to deny Phair her due. 

“Guyville” is also a shocking record.  Phair’s sexual frankness still is shocking.  Calling a standout track “F___ and Run” isn’t going to get you airplay, even if the song is single-worthy which it totally is.  The song is about her wish for a real, romantic storybook relationship instead of a series of one-night stands.  “I want a boyfriend.  The kind of guy who tries to win you over….The kind of guy who makes love cuz he’s in it… I want all that stupid old s___ like letters and sodas.”  It’s this sort of statement that found “Guyville” its audience.  A lot of women found they related to Phair’s dissatisfaction. 

I wouldn’t necessarily call “Guyville” an obviously Feminist record, because Phair does come off as rather downtrodden, sad, and almost scared throughout.   It’s a record packed with pain.  It’s a level of pain which makes Phair’s depressed male counterparts seem like a bunch of whiners.   

One could argue that despite her downbeat state, “Guyville” actually is a Feminist record because on it, Phair sings about her gender in a way that was rarely heard before. Some would say that the bold way she dared to speak out and point out gender inequities was rather empowering.  She did it, while singing in a voice which often sounded deceptively powerless.

I’m not positive that she really set out to make a record this revolutionary.  If you get down to the center of it, it’s really just her describing what it’s like to be a young, struggling artist. This isn’t a happy record. This is the kind of dream record many artists hope to make to lift them out of bad situations. Indeed, if you look at the crowd of female singer/songwriters who followed her, Phair did indeed inspire.  You could argue that Alanis Morissette might not have gotten to record “Jagged Little Pill” without “Guyville.”  “Pill” is a decent record, but next to “Guyville” it seems like watered-down consumerist pop.  “Guyville” on the other hand is the hard stuff.    

This is a very sexual record, but often not in a titillating way. It leaves the listener more uneasy than anything.  Even the very controversial and much-discussed “Flower” has an unsettling tension beneath it.  Before Phair came along, you’d be hard-pressed to find any female singer-songwriter willing to be as intimate and personal.  This record’s not for the easily offended.  Brad Wood’s bare production fits these sparse confessionals well.  If the production was glossy or bright in any way, the songs might lose their punch.  Phair adds to this with her deadpan, knowingly ordinary voice. On this record she sounds like an everywoman, writing songs like a diary.   

Her recent records suffer from too many sonic layers. Here, it’s often just her playing guitar, or her playing with just Brad Wood, or her playing with Brad Wood and assistant engineer Casey Rice.  It’s all quite minimal, and that’s why it stands out.  On the DVD it is said that some record labels thought the finished record was just a collection of demos.  Phair stuck to her guns and said that the record was going to come out the way it was, and that was the best move imaginable. 

A song like “Glory” would totally lack intensity played by a fuller band.  The way it is now is haunting.  It’s just Phair whisper-singing over her own guitar-line and Brad Wood’s barely-heard organ part.  Like Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay,” it’s a song that speaks much more loudly, the quieter it is.  Imagine if someone had treated Smith’s recordings as demos.  He wouldn’t have been the same.   

“Soap Star Joe” is a bluesy rocker full of lyrical detail and intensity.  She dissects her title character as pretty much of a fraud, detail by detail.  It’s brilliant.  Brad Wood’s production is a perfect match for this.  Giving it more echo and shine might have made it palatable for the radio public, but it would’ve done the song a disservice.  These songs need to sound rough. 

Even single, “Never Said,” though upbeat, sticks to a very basic arrangement.  Perhaps Matador deserves the credit for seeing that Phair and Wood were right with this approach.  A major would’ve stomped a track like this into bland arena rock. 

On “Guyville”, Phair’s goal was to be respected by the other musicians in her neighborhood and throughout the Chicago music scene.  She got way more respect than that.  She won over a slew of indie-rock fans, both female and male with her ability to weave a story.

Arguably the best song on the record doesn’t have to do with sexual or gender issues at all.  “Stratford-On-Guy” is nearly three minutes of bummed-out rock perfection with Phair describing what could be a plane crash from a passenger-seat point of view.  There are so many quotable lines on this record, combining musical and lyrical elements, but the moment I find gets the most stuck in my head is this song’s refrain.  “It took an hour, / Maybe a day, / But once I really listened the noise just went away.”  On paper, this song’s lyrics look like dense prose.  Her flawless attention to detail is her real gift.  People who were perhaps initially enticed by Phair’s openly sexual side, if they really bothered to listen to the album all the way through, realized that she was indeed a grade-A songwriter to boot. Few of her peers can match her lyrical illustration.  Quite simply, the woman is brilliant, and a song like “Stratford-On-Guy” proves it. 

The piano-led “Canary” begins like a serene piano recital but then becomes something bigger and menacing. “I sing like a good canary, I come when called…” she sings before she caps it off with “Send it up on fire, death before dawn.” Like the rest of the record, it’s very stirring. There’s something truly bothersome about the sexual and domestic imagery hidden underneath the text. It could be read as the story of trapped, unhappy lover or wife. 

On “Divorce Song,” Phair shows an unhappy couple with more clarity. “Well the license said you had to stick around until I was dead.  But if you are tired of looking at my face, I guess I already am.”  In a different time, this would’ve been more of a celebrated anthem of discontent.  It is one of the most talked about highlights of the disc, but I don’t remember anyone playing a radio-friendly version over the airwaves. 

Phair finds power in a whisper.  She whispers throughout “Gunshy,” highly quotable lines like, “Send three bucks to a comic book, get a house, car and wife.” 

There are also moments of expansive beauty on “Guyville,” particularly on “Explain it to Me” and the tremendously atmospheric and at times, sonically murky “Shatter.”  On the latter, Phair’s vocals don’t begin until more than two minutes in. 

As I have said, this album isn’t for everyone.  Some will take offense that she drops the c-word on “Dance of the Seven Veils.”  She does so in an unusually high, girlish tone for her, but it’s done in part to shock.  If all she was doing was doing was shocking us, this wouldn’t be a great record, but because she’s got the songwriting chops to balance the shock, it works perfectly. 

On “Guyville,” whenever Phair sings something shocking, she tries to sing it in a sweet sort of way. It’s wonderfully disarming. Her much storied “Girlysound” tapes were demos which preceded “Guyville.” On these recordings (which have not seen mass distribution in their entirety) it has been said that she took this approach to extremes.   

“Guyville” is a massively complex, paradoxical record, which is what makes it so compelling.  One moment Phair’s singing in a powerful stance on “6’1”,” and the next she’s singing about being a pseudo-prisoner to some male aggressors on “Help Me Mary.”  She sings, “They make rude remarks about me.  They wonder just how wild I would be.  As they egg me on and keep me mad, they play me like a pit-bull in a basement…”  In the fifty-five minutes of the album’s standard 18 tracks, she shows multiple sides.  Sometimes these personality facets contradict each other, but I suppose we all are that complicated if you get down to it.  I, however, don’t think I have ever heard an album as boldly, nakedly honest as this one, which is what makes this album so special.  There’s vulnerability in her delivery, but also strength in speaking out.  At the same time, by the end, she seems very relatable, like someone you could know and hang out with.  She’s not a larger than life rock star.  She’s a real woman. That in turn makes this album an even bolder, more daring statement.

The three bonus tracks are “Ant in Alaska,” which though a little convoluted, would’ve fit nicely on the original record, a solo instrumental, simply called “Instrumental” which would have also fit, and an uncharacteristic reggae cover of Lyn Taitt’s “Say You,” which though good, stands out from the rest and doesn’t quite fit the album’s context.  It is, however still a welcome addition.         

After watching the bonus DVD, there’s no doubt about the album’s impact.  Phair interviews everyone from John Cusack, to indie-producer god Steve Albini, to NPR’s Ira Glass, to some of the guys from Matador, to the album’s rumored inspiration, Urge Overkill’s Nash Kato.  The film is jam-packed with interesting stories about how the record was made, promoted and toured.  There’s even a section where female listeners talk about how important the record was and still is to them. 

The timing couldn’t be better for this reissue.  The world needs to hear this album again.  Most of all, this was probably an excellent exercise for Phair herself.  After being run through the ringers of the pop world for a few years, my guess is that it must be nice to reconnect with her roots.  She has said in recent interviews that Capitol left her disillusioned and frustrated.  Now that she is back on an indie, maybe she can make the record she wants to make again. 

“Exile In Guyville” is one of my absolute favorite records. I could write at least forty pages about it if I had to. It’s nice that it’s getting the recognition it deserves.   People should be listening to and talking about this record for generations to come!  It’s still just as amazing a record as it was fifteen years ago. 

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