Fifteen years after its release, Liz Phair’s debut, Exile in Guyville, has finally been reissued, and it comes complete with three B-sides and a bonus disc of interviews conducted and filmed by Phair herself. And for those of us whose last copy of Guyville is still on cassette, this remaster is nothing short of a miracle.
Imagined as a track-by-track response to the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street, Exile in Guyville plays like an open diary written by an acutely observant Phair trying to stay afloat in the male-dominated Wicker Park rock scene of Chicago. What’s compelling about Guyville is that we don’t just stand witness to her hardships and epiphanies, her blowjobs and breakups; we feel like Phair is confiding in us personally. This is thanks in large part to both Phair's exceptional songwriting and the recording of Guyville -- sparse and spacious, with Phair’s vocals and bitingly confessional lyrics at the forefront -- and is an element of Guyville that has been wisely and pristinely enhanced with this reissue.
From opener “6’1”” alone, the benefits of this remaster reveal themselves in everything from Brad Wood’s snaky bass line and popping sneer drum to Phair’s electric Fender, all now crystal clear. Phair’s acoustic guitar on “Glory” is put front and center in all the splendor its year-old strings can muster, and Wood’s organ has been unearthed just enough to add an elegiac, ominous tone to Phair’s striking words about a man who has a “really big tongue [that] rolls way out” and “slicks you down” in the club.
Phair’s vocals are louder than before as well, wisely playing up the strengths of Exile in Guyville, which in a way works because Phair isn’t a fantastic singer. The confessional, DIY feel of Guyville paired with Phair’s unhinged, unschooled vocals and guitar work is what makes its listeners feel so intrinsic to the experience: Our relating to Phair’s experiences is part of what makes these songs work. “Fuck and Run” and “Shatter,” for example, aren’t nearly as compelling until Phair’s lyrics sink in, and then they are mammoth, hell, epic in their ability to relate our own lives back to us.
And so here we are fifteen years later. And it seems fifteen years has done quite a number on those who championed Phair so wholeheartedly when Guyville first hit record-store shelves back in 1993. From the deal with Capitol Records, Phair’s pairing up with Swedish hit making team the Matrix, and the eventual “sellout” that had even the most pious of fans shaking their heads in frustration, perhaps the ultimate letdown was that this came from an artist who once spoke so accurately to her listeners about sex, relationships and ultimately transcending their environment.
But there was a time when Phair was unrivaled in her ability to cut to the core so candidly in three minutes or less that just one song could equal the benefits of a therapy session without all the psychobabble and egged-on, sniveling introspection. Phair was prolific and street-wise, the prodigal guitar-toting babe with a knack for lyrics so honest and hard-hitting it almost made up for her vibrato-less, artlessly out of tune voice. And for the half-million or so that bought Guyville (not to mention Whip Smart and the brilliant Juvenilia EP) that is the Phair we’ve been waiting for to return.
Working with teens at a museum in New York City exposes one to the tastes and interests of some of the most culturally astute minors in the United States. All to say, I am consistently surprised by how much they are aware of. So, when I find gaps in their knowledge base, needless to say I'm curious about the reasons. Songwriter and singer Liz Phair has been one such absent force, so it's no surprise that I discover that her classic Exile in Guyville has been out of print and hence digitally unavailable all this time (how did Matador screw that one up?). Thankfully, Dave Matthews (yes, that Dave) and Michael McDonald's (oh yes, that Michael, too) ATO Records has signed Ms. Phair and is reissuing this album with pomp and circumstance. The album now includes a DVD documentary featuring Phair in conversation with '90s Chicago illuminati ranging from producer Steve Albini, Urge Overkill, Matador label chiefs, Jon Cusack and even Ira Glass. Oh, and Phair is performing the album in its entirety in NYC. The kids will definitely be all right.
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