This is my December 3, 2005, Amazon.com review of the all-time classic masterpiece Exile In Guyville by Liz Phair.
The Phairest of them all
Exile In Guyville is a landmark record. It is perhaps the biggest musical statement in indie rock by a woman, not to mention one of the first. It is easily the one of the best CDs of the 1990s. And it is one of the greatest debuts of all time.
But Exile In Guyville is more than just a great record in terms of specifics. It is a great record, period. Even if the rest of her catalog cannot hold a candle to it, any artist in popular music should be so lucky as to have a record like this as a crowning achievement. This is one of those critically revered records for which the reasons for such reverence are obvious, not obscure.
It is not really important to me if this is, as is claimed, a song-by-song response to The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street. The fact that that record obviously inspired her to make this one is good enough for me. And whether this is a “post-feminist” masterpiece is also a moot point, as I don’t think that she sat down to make such a record. I don’t think her intention was to make a political statement, even if by making such an emotionally and sexually explicit record, she ended up doing so anyway. (I know, I said the same thing about The Hidden Cameras CD The Smell of Our Own. Hey, if the shoe fits….) I am more interested in what exactly makes this such a damn fine record, by any standard.
I remember seeing Liz Phair on MTV in 1993. She was asked by Tabitha Soren, “Are you afraid that people might think you’re a slut?” Obviously, that piqued my interest, but I was still in my tragically unhip classic rock phase at the time, so I didn’t seek out the record that they were talking about. Over the years, I would constantly see this CD referred to as a masterpiece, but I still didn’t buy it. That is, until Ms. Phair’s much-maligned 2003 CD was released and she began to get so much press. That was when I decided it was time to hear it. Needless to say, I was immediately taken by it, and never for a second did I ever have to wonder why this was such a critic’s favorite. It was enough that several of the disc’s 18 songs were brilliant, but I quickly realized that almost all of them were. I loved it so much that it may have caused me to like the aforementioned eponymous CD a lot more than I would care to admit today.
As I have made the move from prog-rock junkie to indie-rock fan, I have come to think that any CD outside of the 30-40 minute range better be able to justify the extra time spent listening to it. I tend to believe that any CD over 45 minutes could have and should have been trimmed. Exile In Guyville remains a major exception. I am almost tempted to say that this CD makes me wish more records could be this long and this good. Guyville easily justifies its 55-minute running time. Its tracks run the tempo gamut, and the spare production doesn’t starve the songs. Rather, it allows their details to be revealed over repeated listenings, instead of overwhelming the listener all at once. But producer Brad Wood isn’t afraid to try a few tricks on songs like “Flower” and “Soap Star Joe”. It is surprising Wood did not become a more sought after item in the 90s. Everything on this CD is so perfectly in place that it seems that no one else could have done the job.
Allow me to begin the discussion of the songs themselves by mentioning what I consider to be the two weaker tracks on the disc. Although she continues to perform these songs live, I personally do not think that “Help Me Mary” and “Divorce Song” are as strong as the rest of the record. They are certainly not bad songs, they are simply not as impressive as most of the other ones. And when the other songs are as good as the ones on this record are, the not-so-great moments tend to stand out.
There. Now, it is true that Liz Phair comes across as a sex kitten in heat in some songs, and as a manhater in others. Be that as it may, I think that in some of the slower songs, ones in which the lyrics may not stand out as much, she is able to admit her flaws. While “Girls! Girls! Girls!” has her bragging about how she “takes full advantage” of every man she meets, “Fuck And Run” (aka, “Oops! We Did It Again”) has her realizing that two can play at that game. She is a bit, oh…hypersexual on the songs “Glory”, “Fuck and Run”, and “Flower”, but she never seems like she is playing it up for effect.
After all, she is just as sincere when she is vulnerable, as demonstrated on songs like “Dance of the Seven Veils”, “Canary”, and “Shatter”. And while the Exile On Main Street song-by-song response claim might be a bit far-fetched, she achieves a beautiful Stonesy swagger on “6’1″” and “Mesmerizing”, two of the best songs on the disc. The former song has her insisting that she doesn’t need a particular man in her life, the latter has her lustfully wanting one. (It is easy imagine Mick and Keef having a ball with these songs.)
Phair covers all of the singer/songwriter bases on this record: folk, confessional, spoken word, and rock ‘n roll. And she does each in expert fashion. Her lyrics are literate but not pretentious, explicit but not juvenile. The instrumentation is neither virtuosic nor sloppy. Some songs are great to sing along to (“Never Said”), others are better off in her own voice (“Stratford-On-Guy”).
She is fully formed on this record, and this is a major statement worthy of classic status and to be listened to 30 years from now, at which time it will still be in its own category. Two reviled pop records may have undermined her credibility, but if there is any justice in the world–and one has to wonder sometimes–it will not obscure the fact that the woman who recorded Somebody’s Miracle was also the mastermind behind Exile In Guyville. Granted, she may never revisit the territory of her masterpiece, but that should not cause us to forget that she was once there to begin with.
In my honest opinion, this CD is good enough to raise your standards of what qualifies as a great record. Suddenly, certain records that you thought were great may not sound as good. I am not really sure what would make a person dislike this record. I don’t understand why anyone would not consider it as matter-of-factly great as any other masterpiece of rock music. Some people say that she doesn’t have a “great” voice. Even if I were willing to grant them this (and I am not), my response would be that a “great” voice is not essential to this brand of lo-fi indie rock. I think that even those who love the CD say this so as to not seem too hyperbolic in their praise. The only other explanation I can imagine is that guys see her as a manhater. Granted, she is quite confrontational on several songs, but as I said before, she is just as often able to concede her own culpability.
Ah, the hell with it. I am not going to lend any further credence to those who can’t hear how exceptionally good Exile In Guyville is. It holds its own against any given record, be it Patti Smith’s Horses, Closer by Joy Division, or, well, Exile On Main Street.