"Liz Phair is Rickie Lee Jones (more talked about than heard, a persona completely unrooted in substance, and a ... chore to listen to)."
-- Steve Albini
On Jan. 24, 1995, the Chicago Reader ran the kind of letter to the editor that every newspaper hopes to receive.
It seems record producer and musician Steve Albini, fresh off producing Nirvana's In Utero, had about 770 choice words for the alternative newspaper's music critic Bill Wyman, who began a recent piece recapping the year in local music by saying: "The line on Chicago's 1993 contributions to the national pop firmament -- Liz Phair, the Smashing Pumpkins and Urge Overkill -- is that they've in effect agreed to disagree on musical approaches, making for a fractured 'scene' with little cohesion. This is true, but their stylistic differences mask the philosophical ground that unites them and seems likely to influence a second wave of bands from Chicago in 1994: an explicit rejection of much of the insularity that increasingly characterizes underground music and the fringes of underground music in America. Few would question what I guess would be called the artistic integrity of any of these acts: yet they've avoided (Phair), criticized (Pumpkins) or loudly abandoned (Urge) the harshness, contrariness, and machismo of the underground in favor of a professed desire to sell records."
Albini, identifying himself as "one of the people who sees nothing of value in any of these three artists" accused Wyman -- not the former Rolling Stones bassist (whose lawyers once sent the writer a letter demanding he cease and desist using their common name; turns out the writer, having been born a Wyman, has a more valid claim on the name than the musician, who was born William George Perks Jr.) -- of being a "music press stooge ... supported by an industry that gains nothing when artists exist happily outside it, or when people buy records they like rather than the ones they're told to."
Signing off, Albini suggested Wyman should hold onto that particular column. "[P]ut it away for 10 years. See if you don't feel like an idiot when you reread it."
Albini, an astute critic of the music industry who was warning everyone who would listen about the pitfalls of digital production in the mid-1980s, had a point. Maybe none of the three acts Wyman singled out in his opening paragraph ever made a better record than the ones they released in 1993.
Urge Overkill's Saturation was an obvious attempt by Geffen Records to launch the stylistically ironic and artistically bland band into the big leagues. (It opened for Geffen labelmates Nirvana on the Nevermind tour in 1992.) Some would argue that Smashing Pumpkins never did better than Siamese Dream. And while her subsequent career has been widely underrated (I have never warmed to 2003's Liz Phair, but in retrospect it sounds more banal than embarrassing), Phair's Exile in Guyville seems likely to remain her chief contribution to human progress.
Maybe she should be OK with that.
Because 25 years on, Exile in Guyville may be the most important pop record released in the 1990s. It might be the best debut album of all time -- it's certainly the best double-album debut of all time. (Apologies to fans of Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention's Freak Out!)
Maybe you know the story behind the record, how Phair emerged from the male-dominated independent Wicker Park music scene of Chicago. She'd obviously had it with the boys of Guyville, a term used by members of Urge Overkill to describe reflexively hip, narrow-minded alternative music fans. The kind who dismissed and patronized girl singers who played short-scale student guitars like Phair's signature Fender Duo-Sonic.
Guyville is often cited as a landmark of "do me" feminism, but it is still best known for its explicit lyrics and lo-fi droney vibe. Phair's songs are fantastic, filled with startling imagery and raw honesty.
But forget the casual carnality of some of the lyrics and listen to the sonic architecture of the piece. It's buzzy and flat, with an intermittent and unnerving spikiness in some of the tracks. It sounds like a difficult relationship, a passive-aggressive wheedling album that reveals a deeply girly singer, vulnerable and bluffing and unhappy enough to put her misery on display. It touches a nerve with some and titillates others, although Phair's potty mouth is inevitably balanced by the longing for the conventional talismans of romance.
Phair understands the inherent contradictions of being human. Exile in Guyville is a map of an intriguing, contentious, whip-smart artist who's engaging her demons -- some of whom she happens to find pretty hot. It isn't a repudiation of the male gaze; it's more an engagement with it.
It ended up being a hit, but not a big one -- barely achieving gold record status. Nevertheless, it has persisted. It still gets played regularly in our house and I keep discovering things about it. Albini was wrong if he thought it would be forgotten.
LOVE IS A BATTLEFIELD
Phair's old record label Matador -- which was criticized as not being indie enough when it released Exile on Guyville -- is commemorating the 25th anniversary with Girly-Sound to Guyville: The 25th Anniversary Box Set, a limited edition set of seven LPs or three CDs containing the original album and first official release of Phair's homemade Girly-Sound tapes -- cassettes that essentially served as demos for the album.
A companion book contains an extensive oral history by Jason Cohen plus essays by Phair and critic Ann Powers.
What most people who already have a copy of Guyville will find most interesting are the Girly-Sound tracks, most of which turned up in other forms on Guyville or one of Phair's subsequent records. Some of them are at least the equivalent of the more familiar produced versions -- I happen to prefer the acoustic Girly-Sound version of "F*** and Run" to Guyville's version. Similarly on "Flower," the album's most notorious track, in which Phair delivers what sounds like a wish list of graphic sexual favors she wants to lavish on a guy she describes as childish, selfish and a boor, might be better presented stripped bare.
That's not to say the extras are essential or even more than an interesting sidebar to the main course, but the re-packaging doesn't present as a cynical cash grab. Exile in Guyville can withstand reconsideration and re-contextualization. It arrived as a shocking gesture in 1993. In 2018 it feels more like a mature and intentional work than the brash announcement of a new and ambitious talent.
Phair took some heat when the record was released by suggesting it was a song-by-song rebuttal of the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street, a bit of performative kayfabe that never really held up to scrutiny. Those who suggested that Phair hadn't even listened deeply to Exile on Main Street missed -- or maybe proved -- her point about what these days we might call "mansplaining."
That said, I never really got what she was talking about, in part because it's difficult to say what the Stones' greatest album is about other than nihilism and cocaine. I know what it sounds like -- the wild, dark haranguing of a spittle-flecking street prophet or a junkie's snarling repudiation of all that pretended to goodness and light. It was never Goodtime Mick Jagger's favorite album. Through the years, he'd complain about the mix (his vocals were too low, mainly) and slag off on Jimmy Miller's slipshod production.
Meanwhile, Guyville reacts not specifically to Main Street but to the boy-dominated insular independent music scene of late 1980s-early 1990s Chicago. (Artists are like archers in that they need very specific targets.) Phair felt herself at best a peripheral figure on this scene, and while Guyville is often described as a feminist record, it's far more personal than political. She is -- or was, before she became a rather arch and enjoyable pop professional -- a songwriter given to elliptical confessions. She wants something more than agency -- she wants a boyfriend and all the stuff ("letters and sodas") that comes with it.
One way of looking at the history of rock 'n' roll is as an ongoing conversation; the progenitors posed questions -- such as "Who do you love?" or "What's a poor boy to do on a Saturday night?"-- that have inspired answers from the guts and groins of disaffected youth (or pretenders) through the ages. It's an accumulative and recombinativeart form, full of pilferers and imitations pale and dark. You can draw direct lines from Huddie Ledbetter to Kanye West and from Robert Johnson to She and Him. Remove a tile from the stack and everything above it collapses.
While we trust the art over the artist, there are correlations between Exile on Main Street asks and Guyville answers. Even if the connections are rarely as apparent as in the pairing of the second tracks off the respective albums, "Rip This Joint" (the Stones' song about conquering the United States) and Phair's "Help Me Mary" (which sounds like a rock 'n' roll girlfriend's domestic prayer):
Help me, Mary, please/I've lost my home to thieves/They bully the stereo and drink/They leave suspicious things in the sink.
Yeah, you get the dichotomy; Mick and Keith and the boys are talking big while Liz is left to clean up their collateral damage in the apartment. Her deadpan delivery contrasts with their bombastic noise-bringing -- she's undercutting their braggadocio with a quiet plea for sanity.
And if you listen to Phair's heartbreaking "Divorce Song" in the afterglow of its Main Street correspondent, the murderous "Ventilator Blues," you get a glimpse of what she's thinking: And the license said you had to stick around until I was dead/But if you're tired of looking at my face, I guess I already am.
But such word-by-word parsing is finally reductive; Exile in Guyville may or may not be explicitly designed as a response to Main Street, but it's an emotional reaction to the kind of proudly Neanderthal rock-star posturing of swaggering boys who think themselves as cool as the Rolling Stones. It is a puny human scolding gods.
While Exile on Main Street is one of the four or five rock 'n' roll albums that always gets mentioned in greatest-album-ever discussions, few people make that sort of hyperbolic claim for Guyville. But I'm one of them.
There are specific personal reasons that I love Guyville; we all bring our own associations to every work we encounter. I'm drawn to Phair's self-contradictions and the unreliability of the album's overly honest narrator, a recognizable young woman who has yet to figure out exactly what she's doing here.
She's hearing voices and contributing her own moan to the gang howl. She ran with the pack, but she didn't just go along for the ride. She barked her questions too.
It has never been a chore to listen to her. She's never been a waste of my time. She's never been a drag.
Style on 05/13/2018
Print Headline: Exile in Guyville: 25 years old and still counting