When I was a teenager, Liz Phair first got my attention because she was smoking hot. I thought her songs were OK, but she was hot enough that even if she just screamed into a mic, like some band destroying, talentless succubus, I still would have thought it was amazing. Now that I’m a little older and more mature, I actually like her music. It still doesn’t hurt that she was then, and is now, smoking hot. What does that have to do with her debut album Exile in Guyville? Not much, but I had to write an intro.
In the 90s, I only knew Phair from the singles that got solid Triple J airplay a couple of years after Guyville, so I only knew the more polished, alt-radio friendly hits. Listening to it now, I can understand why she made such an impact at the time. Here’s this not so great voice, this not so great guitar playing, and not much else, that is elevated so much by her presence.
6’1”, Help Me Marry and Glory are simplistic songs with simple melodies and even simpler production values, but Phair’s aggression makes them all bigger than those simple ingredients would suggest. And when the anger is replaced with tenderness in Dance of the Seven Veils, the impact is just as hard, it just comes from a different direction.
The minimalism is one of the biggest charms of Exile in Guyville. There’s a full band backing Phair for plenty of it, but the times she gives them a break really stand out. Especially on a song like Soap Star Joe. On paper, it seems like one of the rockiest songs on the album that would benefit most from some drums, bass and more guitars. Instead, it has some almost none existent snare brushes off in the distance, some tiny electric guitar, and a few seconds of harmonica at the end. Apart from that, it’s Phair, her acoustic guitar and her awesomeness.
With Fuck and Run, I think it’s one you have to listen through early 90s headphones. Because compared to the kind of stuff out today, it probably seems a little tame. Or at the very least, not shocking, But I can’t think of any other music from that period being so frank about a mainstream sensitive topic. Sure, punk bands said more outlandish and confronting stuff. But they screamed it over loud guitars and thumping drums. Liz Phair’s small voice and smaller guitar delivering this message must have been pretty ground breaking at the time.
Songs like Girls! Girls! Girls!, Divorce Song and Shatter are great examples of what works so well on Exile in Guyville. They have that distinctive light guitar jangle. They have that even more distinctive low, withheld voice of Phair. But they also find their own unique sounds amongst an album made up entirely of these simple sounds. In fact, the biggest departure from that recipe is the album’s biggest disappointment. I don’t even know how to describe Flower, Johnny Sunshine and Gunshy without quoting the two word review for Spinal Tap’s Shark Sandwich, described eloquently as a “shit sandwich”.
But the good news is, Exile hits its stride again, closing out strong with Stratford-on-Guy and Strange Loop. They’re in the same vein as everything that makes the first two thirds of the album so good. It’s almost like someone else snuck in the trifecta of clunkers that preceded this final strong push to the finish line.
But enough of my incoherent rambling. To get a better idea of how important this album is, and this era in general, read this awesome article from the AV Club. It’ll do such a great job of making you want to listen to Exile in Guyville, you’ll forget my own half assed attempts above.