The Great Albums

Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville

Rock-solid response to a Stones classic


October 20, 2002




"I wanna be mesmerizing, too," Liz Phair sang midway through her debut. "Mesmerizing to you." With her audacious and ambitious double album, she certainly succeeded in casting her spell. Rare was the fan of indie-rock in 1993 who did not have an opinion about "Exile in Guyville." While the disc never sold in the platinum-plus numbers of other alternative superstars, it was voted album of the year in the Village Voice Pazz and Jop Critics Poll, and Phair was suddenly ubiquitous, appearing everywhere from the cover of Rolling Stone ("A Star Is Born," the magazine announced) to a feature segment on MTV News (where she amiably chatted with Tabitha Soren about how she lost her virginity).

Then 26 and living in the hipster haven of Wicker Park (the testosterone-fueled "Guyville" of her album title), Phair was on the verge of being overexposed before the album was even released. Cassette copies had circulated to select critics months in advance, and many seemed to be devoted to outdoing each other in heaping on the superlatives and accolades.

While it may have eventually gotten out of her control, the hype was initially well-orchestrated by Phair herself. She came across as a grungy, underground version of Madonna--a brilliant, witty, and expert manipulator of the media. Both women reveled in the use of provocative lyrics and photos while simultaneously mocking the fact that "sex sells." And both were happy to play the pretty pop pin-up, then to turn around and use that pose to critique sexual stereotypes.

"Post-feminist," the more egg-headed cultural pundits called this new breed of powerful, self-assured female artist, lauding women who took it as a given that they were the equal of men while proudly flaunting their own sexuality. But where Madonna's goal was to dominate the pop marketplace, Phair wanted something deeper and more significant: She sought to prove that a woman could make rock as raw and as horny as any man's. Hence the link between her album and the acknowledged masterpiece by that most masculine of rock groups, the self-proclaimed "world's greatest rock 'n' roll band."

In countless interviews, Phair claimed that "Exile in Guyville" was designed as a song-by-song "answer" or "response" to the Rolling Stones' decadent 1972 epic, "Exile on Main Street." Nine years later, I'm still not sure whether or not I believe her. Several of the tunes ("F--- and Run," "Stratford-on-Guy") had been written years earlier and recorded on her fabled D.I.Y. "Girlysound" cassettes. And I still don't hear a connection between her "Mesmerizing" and the Stones' "Loving Cup," or between "Girls! Girls! Girls!" and "Turd on the Run."

Still, there are general similarities in the stripped-down sounds and in-your-face attitudes of the two "Exiles." And whether or not you buy the link, you have to hand it to Phair for even daring to invite the comparison, much less having the courage and self-confidence to introduce herself to the world with an 18-song debut.

"Whether anybody likes the album or not, it was totally necessary for me to do," she told me at the time. "It was a complete vision that I achieved for myself, and that was really awesome. I was totally in the fever of it. I wanted to have a novel instead of a short story, and I learned a hell of a lot from trying to do that. That's what mattered to me, and then this other stuff [the hype] started happening all around it. In my mind, it's just completely independent from what I was doing."

The adopted daughter of Dr. John Phair (then chief of Infectious Diseases at Northwestern Memorial Hospital) and his wife, Nancy (a docent at the Art Institute of Chicago), Phair grew up in Winnetka and went on to attend Oberlin College in Ohio. Her first love was art--she painted and made charcoal etchings--and she turned to music almost as a lark, joining the underground network of bedroom four-track cassette artists. Her "Girlysound" tapes won a deal with the New York indie Matador Records, and she soon found herself recording a proper album at Wicker Park's Idful Studio with producer Brad Wood.

"It was my chance to really experiment with some stuff," Wood told me shortly after the album's release. "I was bored with my standard way of recording, and Liz gave me free reign to come up with ideas. Liz was into analyzing what each song [on the Stones' 'Exile'] means, but I didn't care at all. I was more concerned about trying to make a record that 20 years from now, you won't be able to know when it was made."

To this day, Wood is peevish when people call the album "lo-fi." While Phair's sketchy "Girlysound" recordings do indeed sound as if they were taped in her bedroom, "Exile" is an impressive and varied soundscape with many different moods and atmospheres, and some superb playing from Phair (on rhythm guitar and piano), Wood (on drums), and man-about-town Casey Rice (on lead guitar).

Like the Stones' classic, which was recorded in the basement of a rented French villa, Phair's album is understated in the extreme: The drums and guitars have a live, natural sound without tons of studio gimmickry. (It's a lot more "punk" than Andy Wallace's glossy, radio-friendly mix of Nirvana's "Nevermind," for example.) But the disc is also full of interesting production tricks--a tinkling piano, an odd synthesizer, clattering percussion, and even a harp on "Soap Star Joe"--and the bountiful melodies burst out of the mix, hooking you in on tune after tune.

In retrospect, the "lo-fi" rap may have come from Phair's singing, which was often limited and monotonous, when it wasn't downright flat, cracked, or straining to stay in key. (She subsequently took singing lessons, though her voice still isn't a great one.) But rock vocals are all about conviction--Mick Jagger was certainly never a technical virtuoso--and it is impossible to imagine a better singer giving a more convincing delivery of Phair's scorching lyrics.

The words still have the power to shock, as well as to impress the listener for their naked honesty and simple poetry. As a whole, the album is a statement about what it's like to be a sharp, talented young woman who simultaneously loves and hates the men in her life. She can't live with them, and she can't live without them, but she'll be damned if she stops trying to find her ideal soul mate--or to concede that the problem may be partly her own.

"It's cold and rough," she sings on the rollicking opener, "6'1."" "And I kept standing 6' 1" instead of 5' 2"/And I loved my life/And I hated you." In "Help Me Mary," she rails about sloppy male roommates who make lewd remarks behind her back and leave suspicious stains in the sink, but vows that she'll have her revenge, promising to, "Weave my disgust into fame/And watch how fast they run to the flame."

On "F--- and Run," Phair claims that she's been sexually active since she was 12, and on "Flower," she croons the infamous line about wanting to be a "b------ queen." But like strong female rockers before her, from Marianne Faithfull to Chrissie Hynde, she makes it clear that these are her own desires that she's expressing, and she isn't doing so simply to appeal to some male fantasy. "The fire you like so much in me/Is the mark of someone adamantly free," she sings on the closing track, "Strange Loop," and that credo is the source of the album's enduring appeal.

"Exile in Guyville" opened the door for a wave of imitators, from Alanis Morrissette to Meredith Brooks to Fiona Apple (many of whom outsold her), and Phair graduated from Matador to Capitol Records. Devoid of the heavy conceptual conceit and boasting nearly as many memorable songs, 1994's "Whip-Smart" and 1998's "whitechocolatespaceegg" were more immediate and accessible efforts. But her debut is the one fans return to, and while I initially thought it might have been better as a single disc, I find that it's only growing richer and more powerful with the passing of time.

Aside from a few cameo appearances (she sang backing vocals on Sheryl Crow's recent hit "Soak Up the Sun"), Phair is long overdue to produce her fourth album. Longtime fans are griping that she has "gone Hollywood." She left Chicago a few years ago and moved to L.A., where she's reportedly been working with a list of collaborators including Michael Penn, Pete Yorn, Natalie Imbruglia, Vitamin C, and the Matrix, the three-person songwriting/production team behind teen sensation Avril Lavigne.

Wherever Phair goes next, she did indeed succeed in mesmerizing a generation of listeners--and in creating a great album that deserves a place in the same pantheon that hosts her male heroes and inspirations.