Thursday, January 17, 2008

No. 328: Exile in Guyville

Band: Liz Phair
Album: Exile in Guyville
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: As "Jagged Little Pill" is overproduced and Canadian, Liz Phair's debut album is slightly underproduced and decidedly American. Her frank sexuality and lo fi guitar work set a template for many girl rockers to come. Without Liz Phair, so many artists don't exist.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Often, vulgarity is often a substitute for intelligence and that happens on "Exile."
Best song: "Fuck and Run" is great.
Worst song: Hmmm. I don't know. The album's closer, "Strange Loop," isn't great.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely.

Let me get two things out of the way: Yes, the album is based on the Rolling Stone's "Exile on Main Street," though it doesn't follow the original's track listing perfectly.

The second thing is probably annoying to anyone who knows me, so I won't repeat it over and over. Elizabeth Clark Phair and I went to the same high school. She graduated fourteen years before I did. Other famous entertainers to graduate from New Trier Township High School (go Trevians!) include Rock Hudson, Rainn Wilson, two dudes from Fall Out Boy and Charlton Heston.


"Exile in Guyville" excites rock journalists for the same reason this story excites, well, just about every Jewish man in America. The idea of a good-looking chick with a potty mouth and a guitar excites the tons of nerdy dudes who've spent more time with "Zen Arcade" than with other human beings.


The forward sexuality on "Exile in Guyville" isn't so noteworthy now, but if you look at it in relation to "Jagged Little Pill" -- released three years later -- it is quite striking. The emotional range on "Exile" is just as large, from the touched sincerity of "Canary" to the platonic problems of "Help Me Mary" to the breakup anthem "6'1"." With that, though, Phair's sexual straightforwardness is the draw in the album. How many records have lyrics like this?

Hair's too long and in your eyes
Your lips a perfect "suck me" size
You act like you're fourteen years old
Everything you say is so obnoxious, funny, true and mean
I want to be your blowjob queen

Not many, at least coming from a woman.


For the uninitiated: Phair released a series of self-recorded (in Winnetka!) tapes called "Girlysound" that eventually made their way to Matador.


Something that also struck me about the record is the guitar sound, a Brad Wood trademark. The guitar on the album is incredibly distinctive, as though Phair directly plugged her Jazzmaster into the board and recorded it. The distorted guitar sounds equally as simple, as though the overmodulation is the sole thing that distinguishes it from the clean guitar.

It fits with Phair's deadpan, near-ironic vocal delivery. She sounds so disaffected, yet her lyrics are clearly passionate and sincere.

The song "Fuck and Run" is the pinnacle of the record, as it shows the hole of Phair's ability. The song's easy guitar is almost testimonial and the song's lyrics are both a little raunchy and a lot hurt. Phair's song of unhappiness towards her one night stand life doesn't have the anger of "Jagged Little Pill" but is equally unhappy and much more interesting:

And I can feel it in my bones
I'm gonna spend another year alone
It's fuck and run, fuck and run
Even when I was seventeen

And, of course, the narrative of her most recent one-nighter buttresses the chorus. The twinges of regret surrounds the song and perfectly.


"Exile in Guyville" is a Lil' Kim rock and roll record. It's forceful, smart and clever all at the same time. It's what smart girls listened to while idiots listened to "Jagged Little Pill." It is, in short, a classic.


kellydwyer said...

I still remember my Dad, coming into a 13 year-old KD's room just as "Fuck and Run" was playing. Stopping silently to take in the lines that you quoted, finally offering, "nice song," and leaving the room.

I also remember this album being a great compliment to a Sega Genesis NCAA basketball game, for some reason.

padraig said...

hey, my sister went to New Trier (class of 05')! I actually spent most of high school in one those "therapeutic" semi-prisons for kids who get in trouble (cause, you know, I got in a lot of trouble growing up) but I would've gone to ETHS - my folks moved after I got sent away but I grew up in Evanston. there ya go! it's probably for the best anyway - ETHS has the Cusacks and, uh, Jeremy Piven.

so, Exile in Guyville - I actually listened to this for the first time in quite a while on my way to work today and it creeped me out how much it sounds, musically at least, like a stripped down version of Sheryl Crow. I know what makes the difference is the details and presentation, not to mention the obvious lyrical disparity - but still. I found this especially creepy given how, you know, Liz Phair has essentially been trying to pump out Crow-style garbage pop since about 1995 or so.

It piqued my interest so I wasted some more time at work and found (via Wikipedia of course) a hilarious letter - click on my name for the link - by Steve Albini circa 1993 where he eviscerates some mainstream rock critic for trying make one of those "indie scenesters are too elitist" arguments about how great Phair, Smashing Pumpkins & Urge Overkill (yikes!) are and how everyone needs to stop hating on them. Typical caustic, brutal Albini witticisms (he calls Phair the "modern Rickie Lee Jones" and presciently calls out Billy Corgan & Co. as the 90s REO Speedwagon) and then much hilarity ensues in the outraged letters that follow, including a freaking Veruca Salt namecheck. You know who I will defend forever, though? Local H - they freaking ruled when I was 12. Ah, Chicago 90s alt rock.