Exile In Guyville

Liz Phair

Matador Records, 1993


REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


When Liz Phair first gained the attention of the record-buying public, she caused a lot of jaws to hit the floor. Most often it was for the brashness of her lyrics, sometimes it was for the maturity of her songwriting.

Me? I originally stifled a yawn. Yes, it's time - again - for "Mr. Thelen Changes His Mind." Admitting twice in one week that I made a grievous error in my original judgment in my first opinion of an album. Reader Sean McCarthy requested that we review Phair's debut, Exile In Guyville. (Editor's note: Isn't it interesting that two of the three people who wrote in this early ended up joining the panel?)

I first discovered the album on the strength of the single "Never Said," which got considerable airplay in the Chicago area. The mix of a unique guitar sound and drum work drew me to the album, but I was originally let down by the remainder of it. Into the Pierce Memorial Archives (now serving number 12) it went until Mr. McCarthy made his humble request.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Phair was one of the leading figures of the "grrrl" movement - women who had been dumped on by men and weren't about to take any more shit - in fact, they were going to dish it out double-time, thank you very much. I know I was squirming when Phair referred to men as "thieves" in the song "Help Me Mary" - just one of the incredible songs on Exile In Guyville.

Phair is more of a rhythm guitarist than a lead player, though her own unique style of playing seems to incorporate a shade of lead playing throughout the songs. The opening riffs to "Soap Star Joe" make it sound akin to a Go-Gos cut - though the track is far from that. In fact, the fact that Phair iften plays without a full band on this album may be what sets it apart as a special work. The sparseness of the arrangements on cuts like "Explain It To Me" and "Canary" are what make them stand out.

And though Phair decries in her songs that she is kind of an old-fashioned girl, she erases that image quickly with the roughness of the language used. (Note: I am no prude - I've used every single swear word I know of, so I'm not shocked to hear it from a woman's mouth.) Phair sings in the charmingly-named "Fuck And Run": "I want all the stupid old shit / Like letters and sodas."

It is the angelic voice at times that provides the shocks for the choice of language, as on "Dance Of The Seven Veils." Other times, it's just the up-frontness that makes my eyeballs pop out, like on "Flower" - Jesus, she says some things to her lover that even I never told any girl I was dating. (Maybe it would have helped me... but I digress.)

The language doesn't bother me - it's the powerful damnations of the subjects in her songs that I think speaks volumes more. Exhibit "A": "And the license said you had to stick around until I was dead / But if you're tired of looking at my face / I guess I already am." Or maybe this line from "Divorce Song" says it all: "It's harder to be friends than lovers / And you shouldn't try to mix the two." Ka-pow.

Exile In Guyville is an album that you cannot fully grasp on just one compulsory listen. I had to re-listen to the whole album twice to pick up on some of the nuances that Phair put into this album. She poured her whole being into these eighteen songs - and she hasn't topped this work yet. A must-listen, though I'd put the kids to bed before popping it into the tape deck.

Rating: A-

User Rating: A


I would probably say this is the "album of the decade" for the '90s. There may have been superior albums, but this one seemed to capture the music scene in the '90s better than any other album. In addition to kicking off the resurgence of the female singer-songwriter movement (with Tori, Bjork, PJ Harvey), the album's low-fi, DIY mentality (recorded on a four-track in a bedroom) that sowed the seeds of the new "indie" movement that we hear today and finally, it was just a flat-out amazing album that could not have been made at any other time prior to the '90s. An absolute classic.

© 1997 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Matador Records, and is used for informational purposes only.