Liz Phair - Exile In Guyville
Coming out of an early-nineties alternative rock movement birthed in Chicago, which also included Urge Overkill, Liz Phair's Girlysound cassette, recorded on a 4-Track portastudio and issued within a small coterie of friends and label contacts attracted as much attention for its melodic take on indie rock as it did for its frank and cheerfully vulgar lyrics, sung by a sassy, blue-eyed girl who was possibly taking the adoring rock press for a ride as much as she was innocently playing up to their fantasies.
Of course, such an attitude wouldn't have gone far had Phair not written the music to back up the critical acclaim and, as it happens, Exile In Guyville is a tremendous album. The songs swagger from the moment Phair downstrokes the opening chords to 6'1" accompanied only by a crisp snare drum and bass through to the shimmering sun-crisped ending of Strange Loop, crossing through many lo-fi points along the way. Indeed, what is most refreshing about Exile In Guyville is that Phair not only offers 4/4 indie rock and power-pop songs but also distant piano pieces lost in amplifier hum, intimate acoustic confessionals, slow, tender ballads and tense rock played on what sounds like one guitar string, all the time taking advantage of Brad Wood's and her own skills in the studio to develop a rich set of aural sounds and textures beyond the reach of most of her contemporaries. As an example, listen for the 2m30s of slowly strummed guitar, muted bass and controlled feedback that introduces Shatter before Phair's voice enters.
Then again, in writing straightforward rock, Phair has rarely bettered this album's more direct moments - the immediacy of 6'1" reappears on the pumped-up Never Said and Johnny Sunshine as well as the direct and unaffected Fuck And Run. Better than these, though, is Help Me Mary, in which the song's subject goes from being an unwilling victim of bullying, who is played, "like a pitbull in a basement", through to aspiring to be more loved through pleading, "temper my hatred with peace" before expecting that her one-time tormentors will come to her as once they shunned her, watching, "how fast they run to the flame."
The highlight of the album, however, is Mesmerizing, the last track on what would have been the first LP out of a double-album set. Beginning with a wary yet insistent guitar passage that fizzes with youthful confidence, Phair sings of a troubled relationship in which her partner has backed up as far as he can and who has kicked equally hard in response before stating that she not only likes this situation but that she hopes to become just as loved as she is loving. Lyrically and musically, Mesmerizing is a marvellous song, breathtaking in the manner in which it moves between verses, chorus and bridge and perfectly constructed by Phair with her collaborator, Brad Wood.
Apart from the music contained here, Phair talked up Exile In Guyville as a song-by-song response to The Rolling Stones' Exile On Main Street. As much as the music press adored the idea, it utterly fails to hang together, not only from the first song, where Phair's strutting "feeling better now I'm rid of you" song, 6'1", bears little connection to the Stones' chronicling of the high life, Rocks Off, but also to the very end. Being honest, anyone seeking an indie reworking of Exile On Main Street would be better served by tracking down a copy of Pussy Galore's cassette-only reworking of the Stones' classic than Exile In Guyville but all credit to Phair for publicising her debut album with such a canny statement, which was sure to prick the interest of music journalists who wistfully recall their attendance at Altamont.
Finally, the very best aspect of this album is in the exquisite packaging, which mirrors the self-contained world in which the music is presented. From the intimate Polaroids within the inner sleeve mocking Dirty Harry to the images of Liz Phair on the front and rear covers, one screamingly extrovert, the other shadowy, lost and slightly out of focus with its subject peering into the camera, Exile In Guyville has always impressed by being a perfect encapsulation on one woman's attempt to make sense of her life in as honest, sassy and snappy a manner as possible.
Liz Phair would get better at writing simple rock and pop songs, better at honest attempts to summarise unglamourous relationships and better at clarifying what she wants to say but never did it all come together as well as it did here. This is a truly glorious album and everything sits as perfectly as it has been claimed it does, response to Exile On Main Street's call or not.