(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, March 21, 2013

History lesson: Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville (1993)

Vulnerable brashness is still transgressive

More than 20 years ago, Liz Phair drifted into Chicago’s indie scene and tried to find her place. Surrounded by bands like Smashing Pumpkins, Urge Overkill and Codeine, Phair shopped her home-made “Girly Sound” cassettes and built up some hype. After a failed attempt to develop her demos with John Henderson’s label, Feel Good All Over, she connected with Matador Records in 1992 and moved forward on what would become Exile in Guyville. The title referenced an Urge Overkill song, “Goodbye to Guyville” and reflected some of Phair’s distance from the testosterone heavy scene. But Phair borrowed that masculine energy to move beyond the classic female singer/songwriter trope. Her tight guitar hooks and catchy lyrics exuded rock credibility and she offered plenty of brazen words and hard looks. But even as she played the rocker role, she couldn’t bring herself to treat the songs shallowly. She wrote too truthfully and her vulnerability leaked past the sarcasm and defiant facade. From the opening song, she blended softness with a harder edge and set the stage for the whole album.

“6’ 1”” starts with smoothly meshed drums and guitar, supporting a soaring melodic bass line. Phair’s pitch drifts a bit as she whittles away her gigolo subject. Despite her relatively flat tone, her anger burns brightly, “And I love my life/ And I hated you”. This kind of personal reaction would make a great punk song, but the polish of the arrangement gives the tune a more nuanced impact. This defines one of the two thematic poles for the album. Stuck in rock ‘n’ roll Guyville, Phair can’t quite decide between psychologically dissecting her man-boy peers and playing drag king to beat them at their own game. Either way, she grinds her axe against a strawman stand-in. He’s the kind of guy that she understands all too well. In places, it seems a bit heavy handed to be effective, but too many real guys heard the frank girl in “Flower” and missed the commentary, reacting with lust. And it was songs like “Flower” that gave Exile in Guyville its power. The sharpest of these, “Dance of the Seven Veils”, came after the first few tracks of solid rock grooves. If those songs gave a sense of Phair’s independence, “Dance” shocked with the casual profanity of its chorus. The verses have a loose, sing-song feel made creepier by her low-affect vocals. Then she switches to her higher register to feign a kind of sweet femininity. In a dreamy tone, she sings, “I ask because I’m a real cunt in spring/ You can rent me by the hour”. Even 20 years later, this feels transgressive. Today, women may be overtly sexual and their language can be coarse, but this offhand use of the word “cunt” is still jarring. Her deadpan delivery makes the sarcasm clear, but there’s a subtext of accusation. This would come to influence a host of other performers like Mary Prankster and Alanis Morissette, but Phair’s complex mix of damaged weakness and uncompromising frankness remain impressive.

Phair’s songs resonated with national critics, taking high slots in a number of year-end lists. Her original blend of posturing and over-sharing made a strong impression and stood out from the crowd. In spite of the album’s commercial success, or maybe because of it, there was a fair amount of backlash from her fellow Chicago rockers. Phair describes that time as being “kind of at war with indie” where indie was fueled by sour grapes and anger at her criticism of Guyville. It may well have been the feminist challenge in her lyrics that triggered her most vocal critic, recording engineer/music pundit Steve Albini. Reacting to an article by Bill Wyman of the Chicago Reader, Albini seemed to take the album as a personal affront. Writing Phair off as overhyped, it’s telling that his choice epithet is to call her a musical slut, pandering to her audience. Regardless of Albini’s rantings, Exile in Guyville continued to do well with both alternative and mainstream music press.

The album has aged well as modern trends have embraced some of its aesthetics. Low-fi production values, challenging lyrical themes and raw vocals are pervasive in today’s hip, small-scale releases. But Phair’s music still stands out because her short, pithy gems remain tight and compelling. Producer Brad Wood deserves a fair amount of credit, in large part for the decision to record the bass and drums to fit Phair’s vocals and guitar. This gives the arrangements a Japanese perfection: each song is only as busy as it needs to be, allowing subtlety without excess. The weakest element is Phair’s voice – she has a tendency to drone and speak-sing – but this lack of polish contributes a perception of artistic sincerity.

The pace of the album is another factor in its success. The songs flow between catchy rockers like “Help Me Mary” and introspective musings like meditative swaddle of “Explain It to Me”. Phair has credited the album’s flow to its inspiration, the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St.. In numerous interviews, she’s drawn thematic and pacing parallels between the two albums, but the linkage seems tenuous at best. Even if that remains a better story than an analytic lens, she does bring a taste of Mick’s brash confidence and plenty of Keith’s guitar feel, especially on songs like “Mesmerizing”. This is one of the best tracks on the album. The choppy, repeated guitar riff of the opening sets up a “Gimme Shelter” groove. Later in the song, the comparison becomes even more apt. The guitar chords and the organ slide into place with a shaker rhythm and a sweet, savant guitar lead settles over the top. It turns out to be one of the longer tracks on the album, but it still delivers a punch with economy and grace.

Even after 20 years, Exile in Guyville is a staple in my listening rotation, along with Phair’s follow-up Whip Smart (1994). The mix of well-constructed songs, sly commentary, humor and surprise keep these albums relevant. Unfortunately, her later recordings haven’t done as well. The further she’s gotten from her Girly Sound days and close contact with Guyville, the less spirit her music seems to have. 2003’s Liz Phair proved to be critical downfall. After conflicts with Capitol Records, she bowed to the pressure to work with hit songwriting team, The Matrix. The resulting pop-oriented songs sabotaged her artistic credibility. Albini probably felt vindicated as many critics and fans decried her for selling out. But Phair’s later missteps don’t negate the magic of her debut album and vulnerable challenge she offered.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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