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Spin 100 Greatest Albums: 1985-2005

Phair and Balanced

Liz Phair Turns to Wonder

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Liz Phair remembers very well the outrage caused by her decision to embrace Matrix-produced pop on her self-titled 2003 album.

By Melissa Maerz
Spin, July 2005

Liz Phair
Exile in Guyville
Matador, 1993

When indie-minded label execs went searching for America, Liz Phair told them, “You’re looking at it, babe.” An upwardly mobile slacker who taught herself to play guitar, the 5’2″ Midwesterner stood for something unmistakably patriotic: the idea that an artist who defended her DIY ideals never had to apologize for wanting to make shitloads of money. In fact, she boldly cashed her first Matador check at the expense of those who popularized that dream: Guyville was a song-by-song response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. and a direct missive against the Chicago scenesters who treated her like a band girlfriend. “My record was a literal deconstruction of the male rock paradigm,” Phair says. “Plus, I could barely play guitar or sing, which was very fetching back then.”

Guyville’s untrained musicianship and antistructuralist arrangements sounded like a form of social protest, and Phair’s lack of techie-speak chops became a creative advantage in the studio. “Since Liz was a painter, she would use visuals to describe the sound she wanted,” recalls producer Brad Wood. “The main guitar on ‘Mesmerizing’ was supposed to sound dark brown.” With short-circuiting amp buzz and muddy strumming doodled in the margins of each song, Guyville was a commercial success that sounded as if it came from a psychological underground — from the id of a “blowjob queen” whose idea of gender equality was a man who would “circle the cherry” in return. The album was, in other words, one big secret unearthed onto alt-rock’s expanding Main Street, made all the more subversive by the Rolling Stones never acknowledging its existence. Says Phair: “I think they think I did something bad.”

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