Exile in Guyville, by Liz Phair
1993, Matador Records. Producer: Liz Phair and Brad Wood
In My Collection: CD, 1994.
(Five minute read)
IN A NUTSHELL: Exile in Guyville, the 1993 album from Liz Phair, helped usher in lo-fi 90s rock. It’s a diverse record, with some songs qualifying as rockers, a few as singer-songwriter musings, and some that are downright strange. The production from Phair and Brad Wood, who also drums and plays bass, places Phair’s unusual voice at the center of the proceedings. Whether she’s belting it out, using a lilting soprano, or delivering lines in her slackery, raspy growl, she always sounds good. And the lyrics are varied, too, even if they mostly focus on life as a young woman in music. Sometimes they’re direct, sometimes they tell a story, often they’re simply poetry. Eighteen songs may be a handful too many, but overall, this collection stands the test of time.
THEORHETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 30.
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The lucky among us will eventually arrive at that nebulous, confusing, perhaps decades-long holding pattern called Adulthood. Before we get there, we spend a lot of time trying to understand it.
As young kids we ape the grown-ups on TV, playing spies or house, as we try to figure it out. We fantasize about becoming mechanics or doctors or basketball players or dancers, but Destination Grown-Up lies in the distant future. Regardless of whether we pursue those childhood dreams through our ever-changing adolescence, an annoyance common to Adulthood gradually reaches into our lives: obligations. We have to pay for things. We have to meet people we don’t want to meet, and be places we don’t want to be, and plan for a future beyond Saturday night, all because it’s what mature people do. Adulthood looms over everything, and we try to keep it at bay in bars and ballfields and video game screens. Still, we know the inevitable awaits.
So how will we know when we arrive? Obligations are always part of the picture. I’ve been buying baseball cards with my own money since elementary school, and was compelled to attend church until I finished high school. As a young man/old boy, I guessed that when all the frivolities of youth were finally stamped out, I’d know I was an adult. When I no longer played pickup basketball, and stopped doing stand-up and acting, that will be the sign. The day I finally blocked up my new-music ears and started the adults-only complaint that “the music today just doesn’t compare to the stuff from my youth” … then I will have, sadly, arrived.
I first listened to Exile in Guyville in late spring, 1994, at an afternoon party, of sorts, in the apartment of an older couple who were friends of my new girlfriend. A recent emigre to San Francisco, I’d been dating Julia about 6 months, and this party was going to be one more new experience in a year full of new and exciting experiences. Determined to evince the persona of an ever-intrepid sampler of new and exotic encounters, I’d offered a resounding “Yes!” when she’d asked me, “Do you want to go meet Sharon and Jim’s newborn twins?” A part of me couldn’t believe I was going to spend an afternoon with a couple of incontinent, drooling, crying weaklings. (The twins, not the parents.) And even though I’d met and enjoyed the company of Sharon and Jim many times, now that they’d become parents, it felt impossible that I’d have anything to discuss with them. But … obligations, y’know?
We sat in the couple’s sunny living room, and Jim handed both Julia and me a swaddled little bundle like he was handing out hoagies from A&M Pizza. (I needed some assistance to properly hold the kid.) He moved to the stereo as we cooed and chirped at the sleeping infants and chatted with Sharon about her new life as a mom. Then Jim put on Exile in Guyville. As a new music fan and longtime subscriber to Spin magazine at the time, I’d heard a couple tracks on the radio and read a few things about Exile in Guyville over the past few months. The song “Never Said” was getting a lot of airplay. But I hadn’t heard much of it.
I don’t want to overstate the impact of the moment, but that’s about when I knew I was an adult. We were doing non-youthful things – handling babies and talking about parenting – but also enjoying new music. I felt as if I was in a scene from some TV program from the 60s, The Dick Van Dyke Show or Bewitched, and instead of placing Coltrane’s A Love Supreme on the Hi-Fi, my neighbor just slid Exile in Guyville into the CD player1. I liked the record, we discussed it, and I went out and bought it soon after. Even as an adult I could like new music. I kept playing basketball and performing comedy and acting, too.
Exile in Guyville opens with a song that exhibits most of what makes the album tick. The subtly rocking “6’1″.”
It opens with a strumming electric guitar, and the bass and drums entering quickly to propel things along. Phair’s facility with melody and unusual song structure is also on display. It’s bouncy and catchy, but warmly unpolished. The entire record has a lo-fi sound that was popularized at the time by bands like Guided by Voices and Sebadoh. Phair’s work is a bit less messy, but still, her thin, inexact voice and rough guitar give the record an immediacy and energy. This isn’t to say I don’t like her voice – I really do! And the harmonies sound great, as well. The lyrics are about standing up to the douchebag boyfriend, in which the 5’2″ Phair acts as if she’s 6’1″.
The same features are on display on the rousing next song, “Help Me Mary.”
This one’s a bit more driving, with Brad Wood’s bass pulsing throughout. The guitar riff is pretty cool, and Phair’s gruff voice is perfect on this song about being a strong, resilient woman in a scene dominated by thoughtless (or worse) men. Her words about locking doors and memorizing rules, and the seesawing self-esteem that such efforts cause, ring true. Meanwhile, Phair plays some great guitar lines throughout.
The album is 18 songs long, and as with many lengthy records (but not all) I think it could have been trimmed down. However, 18 songs is key because that’s the length of The Rolling Stones’ masterpiece Exile on Main Street. In early interviews, Phair claimed Exile in Guyville was a song-by-song response to that Stones record, an idea doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. (Try it – you’ll see.) However, this type of endeavor is just the sort of thing that gets (mostly male) music-nerds hyped up and arguing over whether or not it’s true. And since the record is partly about Phair’s experience among those music boys, this sounds to me like both a clever joke at their expense and a way to get them to listen. Anyway, “Glory,” a brief cut that may be about either a creepy guy or a lovable dog, isn’t one of my favorites.
“Dance of the Seven Veils,” featuring just Liz and her Fender Jaguar, is also just okay, although I like how she varies her voice as she hits the chorus. It also displays her penchant for using “bad words” (the “C” word here), which caused a bit of controversy back in the day, as well. But when her songs work, Phair really produces gems. For example, “Never Said.”
The vocals are the key to this song, with Phair rasping the lead while also layering background vocals behind it. The music’s ascending chords are simple but catchy, and guitarist Casey Rice rings out a single note over top. It’s a very laid-back sound, perfectly supporting Phair’s vocal delivery. The lyrics actually read as an angry rebuke, but the song has a more Gen-X, slacker “whatever, dude” vibe. “Soap Star Joe” has a really cool strummed guitar pattern, with squawky harmonica and distant drum cracks highlighting sections. It’s an unusual-sounding singer-songwriter piece that may be about the silliness of male models. The harmonica that finishes the song is great.
Phair returns to the quiet place on “Explain It to Me,” a subtle piece with inscrutable lyrics. (I would like someone to Explain It to Me.) “Canary” introduces the piano into Phair’s repertoire, recorded in a lo-fi way that suits her voice. Exile in Guyville was among the first wave of alt-rock records by women. Coming just after Juliana Hatfield and Belly, joining artists like Hole and Fiona Apple, these were welcome voices in a testosterone-heavy rock scene. “Canary” offers a look into what it’s like to be a young woman making a go in a traditionally man-dominated field.
The next song, “Mesmerizing,” builds brilliantly from those slow songs.
It starts off sounding like another slow, dreary piece, but adds a bass drum and maracas, which are enough to kick up the energy. Phair’s voice is watery and distorted, and it sounds great, particularly the “I-I-I-I-I like it” (1:38). The guitar playing is terrific, with a nifty solo from Rice at 2:02. It’s one of the few songs on the record that does kind of reflect Exile on Main St., with the sparse arrangement and a guitar solo overtop. Then there are the lyrics, which seem to comment a bit on “Rocks Off.” In a way, this all reminds me of a softer White Stripes kind of song.
Up next is another number that had folks clutching their pearls in ’93. After decades of men bragging about their varied, numerous sexual exploits, some people weren’t prepared to hear a young woman sing “Fuck and Run.”
Whereas the dudes have always sung about their lack of feelings over these situations, Phair actually explores the emotional impact of the situation. (Something I’m certain those dudes always felt, as well.) The lyrics are great, as Phair asks for a boyfriend (with great self-harmonies), and all that “stupid old shit/ like letters and sodas.” It’s actually a very romantic song. Musically, it’s bouncy and light. I like the transition when she sings “I can feel it in my bones/ I’m gonna spend another year alone” (1:49). “Girls! Girls! Girls!” is almost a companion piece to “Fuck and Run.” It’s a strange little guitar number with creepy vocals responding to the main lyrics, which offer a different perspective of her love life, with Phair now relishing in manipulating men.
My favorite song on Exile in Guyville is “Divorce Song.” Despite its lo-fi production and Phair’s gruff voice, the song packs an emotional wallop documenting what sounds like the last time a couple will have the same fight they always have.
The song takes a long time to finally get to the chorus, but when it does Wood’s bass drives the song forward. At 1:48 the bass rings out some high notes behind Phair’s “you put in my hands …”, and for some reason that really adds to the lonely feeling of being in a fight with a partner. The song sounds great and has a cool little harmonica-led coda, as well. “Shatter” is another slow song, not too distinct from the others, about Phair’s devotion to a boyfriend. “Flower” continues Phair’s efforts to make your grandparents uncomfortable, as she sings her desire to get very physical with a guy she’s into. She proto-raps the dirty (and funny!) lyrics behind weird guitar spikes and an angelic vocal riff, which enhances their effect. Hey, if Robert Plant can say he’s gonna give his lady every inch of his love, why can’t Phair say she wants her man’s fresh young jimmy?
Another favorite of mine is “Johnny Sunshine.”
it starts as a sound-collage, a meditation on one chord. Two crunchy guitars support her as she lists all the shitty things her partner did. The second time through, she adds a lament in a higher register. Phair has a voice that can go many places, and in this song she shows it off. At 1:17 she breaks out her light and airy soprano voice, as the song slows to a turtle pace. It’s really a terrific vocal demonstration, and it’s also a pretty weirdly constructed piece of music. “Gunshy” is a gentle, weird song with great guitar picking. (It also includes a reference to the 70s comic book sensations Sea Monkeys!) It’s the best guitar song on the record, with multiple parts fit together like a puzzle.
As I said earlier, this is a long record, and I’d have liked it better if it was cut down to the 12 best. But it finishes on a couple strong notes. “Stratford-On-Guy” starts with a flange, and describes a flight landing in Chicago, her adopted home town. She delivers her very poetic lyrics in her typical slacker style, and I like the chorus. “Strange Loop” bops along to end the record on an upbeat note. Well, musically, anyway. Lyrically, it’s a precursor to “Divorce Song,” expressing a desire to stop fighting.
Even though I’m now an old(er) man who has supposedly been a grown-up for decades, it’s not hard to recall the confusion of what adulthood would mean. It seemed to click for me when I heard this record, but that doesn’t mean I understand it 30 years later. I’m still not sure if I know what I’m doing, but I still like listening to Exile in Guyville.
“Help Me Mary“
“Dance of the Seven Veils“
“Soap Star Joe“
“Explain It to Me“
“Fuck and Run“
“Girls! Girls! Girls!“