Along with the birth of alternative music, the early 1990s unleashed a new wave of feminism. The young women of this emergent culture connected with their strength, smarts, and sexuality in new ways. Their mothers might have burned their bras, but the daughters of the Baby Boomers wore their underwear as outerwear. They made it acceptable for women to show they were comfortable with their sexuality without having to join a commune. They could call themselves girls without fear of the glass ceiling crashing down on them. They could be pretty and hardcore at the same time, as evidenced by the requisite Lollapalooza moshpit ensemble of the day: a floral print sundress paired with combat boots. And a new league of female singer-songwriters discovered that they could be hardcore without sounding hardcore. Tori Amos kicked this off with her brutally honest lyrical revelations, which she sang while pounding her Bösendorfer and grinding her hips.
Liz Phair soon followed with her remarkable debut, Exile in Guyville, now freshly remastered and appended with bonus tracks and a documentary DVD. Across 18 cuts, Phair provides a whole other notion of the next-gen sexually liberated woman. Whereas Amos’s Little Earthquakes was lushly produced, grandiose, and skirted with the otherworldliness of Kate Bush, Liz Phair’s music was paired down, decidedly indie, and startlingly straight-forward. Amos lured you into her private church for confessionals, but Phair just opened up her mouth and said stuff.
Oh, the stuff she said! Song titles like “Divorce Song” and “Fuck and Run” perfectly encapsulate Phair’s frank, yet thoroughly compelling storytelling style. The latter clearly reveals that she wasn’t editing her language for parental approval, either. Reading the lyrics for “Flower”, it becomes obvious why an early bootleg was entitled Pottymouth Girl. The text to that track is eye-popping, but even when she sings about wanting to be some guy’s “blowjob queen”, we never get the sense that she’s merely going for shock value. The songs on Exile in Guyville are just too damn good for such cheap appeal to be the main allure.
Liz Phair – Divorce Song
Though supposedly written as a track-by-track response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street (no one but Phair has ever seen the connection), and despite this review’s preamble on feminism and the era from which the album sprang, Guyville is very easy to appreciate as simply a great collection of songs that are just as good now as they were 15 years ago. Much of the record’s transcendence comes from its pure and simple sounds. Phair and producer Brad Wood played most of the instruments themselves, recording everything in an unadulterated fashion. Whether it’s the spare and wobbly electro-folk of “Explain It to Me” or the crackling pop/rock of opening cut “6’1″”, the listener feels invited into the room where these recordings were made. In this way, Guyville bears the same intimacy and sonic scrappiness of the Velvet Underground’s third album, or pretty much anything Jonathan Richman has ever laid to tape.
Phair’s low, flat alto is endearing and refreshing and believable in the same ways that Lou Reed’s or Richman’s similarly imperfect voices are. Her tone is her own, with no trace of tampering from coaches or trainers. Like the instrumentation around her, there are no barriers of big label reverb or, god forbid, pitch correction to stand in the way of absorbing every word of these terrific songs. The brief and mournful “Glory” presages Elliott Smith’s airily tuneful yet soul-heavy folk, as Phair describes a man with “a really big tongue / It rolls way out” and “It slicks you down”. The next song on the album, “Dance of the Seven Veils”, lifts the mood slightly with lightly phased electric guitar strums, but is counter-balanced by the tale of a boyfriend who’s being subsumed by the life he’s chosen. Instead of plunging into melodrama, Phair’s funny response is, “Makes me wanna roll you up in plastic, toss you up, and pump you full of lead”. Now that is the kind of frustration that real people in real bad relationships can relate to: loving a screw-up so much that, sometimes, you just want him or her to get whacked, Mafia style. That track is followed by another crisp rocker, the toe-tapping “Never Said”.
The pacing of Exile in Guyville is another of its many fine qualities. With 18 tracks that run nearly an hour, even good material can wear thin. Wood and Phair sequenced the album beautifully, though. The mood of the numbers and the density of the arrangements undulate perfectly throughout. Despite using an intentionally limited palette of sounds, they mixed in just enough variety to stamp each track with its own feel. Slotted right in the middle of the album, too, is “Canary”, the lone piano number, where echoing, throbbing chords underscore Phair’s sad tale of submission: “I jump when you circle the cherry / I sing like a good canary / I come when called / I come, that’s all”.
ATO’s reissue of Exile in Guyville (originally on Matador) sounds fantastic. In addition to bumping the volume levels up to current standards, the instruments are warmer and better defined in the mix. These changes are subtle, though. In no way did ATO take an indie rock record and give it a major label sheen. All of the wondrously rough bumps are still there. What the reissue team most notably added are three mediocre bonus tracks and a DVD documentary, Guyville Redux, filmed by Phair herself. Let’s be clear right upfront: Liz Phair is a terrible filmmaker. One of her subjects, an early fan and disseminator of her Girly Sound demo, is so underexposed, you’d think his identity was being hidden. Elsewhere, a flirty-seeming John Cusack is barely audible. Technical issues aside, the content is hit-or-miss. Steve Albini is engaging and sagacious, but ATO label founder Dave Matthews (yes, the musician) is boring and inarticulate. Probably the most interesting subject is the interviewer (another role occupied by Ms. Phair), who comes across as very level-headed, fun, open to criticism, genuinely flattered by praise, and not someone who you’d think would have sold out the indie world for a stab at big-time pop stardom.
We can only hope that her own re-submersion into Exile in Guyville will be as richly rewarding and inspiring as it almost certainly will be for both old fans and yet another new generation of young women. Lyrically, the album is thoughtful, impulsive, impressively bold, palpably timid, sexually brave, romantically stupid, and smart as hell. The music is an auditory lecture on indie writing and DIY recording. Stick with the basics, make sure each song has a distinct and memorable moment or two, don’t overdo it with the technology, but take care to get a good, clean sound. The rest of the equation is pure genius, or inspiration, or guts, or all of the above. In 1993, Liz Phair possessed these qualities in spades, and she funneled them all into Exile in Guyville, creating one of the best albums of the ’90s. In the late 2000s, it still sounds great.