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Liz Phair’s ‘Exile in Guyville’ @ 30

On the Beat: Liz Phair concert shows why ‘Exile in Guyville’ is an enduring classic

Phair surprises audience during Pete Yorn’s performance at the Vic in Chicago

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In the decades since its release, the album has shifted from cult classic to musical touchstone, inspiring everyone from Speedy Ortiz to boygenius.

By Stephen Thomas Erlewine | December 12, 2023

Liz Phair just wrapped up a tour celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of Exile in Guyville, a jaunt that helped pull its legacy into perspective. Yet Phair’s own performances were only one part of this equation. In November and December, she was supported by either Blondshell or Kate Bollinger, two contemporary acts that display a considerable debt to the singer-songwriter’s emotional frankness and spare, painterly musicality. They’re hardly the only modern rockers who’ve either followed or expanded the blueprint laid out by Exile in Guyville. Speedy Ortiz, who released one of the year’s best rock records in Rabbit Rabbit, taps into the nervy ’90s indie vibe coursing through Exile; Snail Mail mines the moodier, introspective aspects of Phair’s songbook; and Soccer Mommy marshalls some of the artist’s cinematic flair. The three singer-songwriters that comprise boygenius all favor the kind of miniature sketches that give Exile in Guyville such a vivid interior life.

In a sense, Liz Phair is a greater musical presence in 2023 than she was in the mid-1990s, when she was poised to capitalize on the initial shockwaves of Exile. That didn’t quite happen, although it wasn’t for lack of trying. Not long after Phair issued Exile in Guyville on the indie Matador, the label struck a distribution deal with Atlantic Records partially because there was a sense that Phair was on the cusp of stardom — she just needed some extra marketing muscle to push her across the finish line. Whip-Smart, her swiftly-released 1994 sequel, arrived with some promotional heft. Phair landed on the cover of Rolling Stone, and “Supernova” was plucked from the record and sent to MTV’s Buzz Bin, a designation that helped get the single into Billboard’s Modern Rock top ten. After that flurry of attention, Whip-Smart settled to the level Exile in Guyville earned through word of mouth: it was a cult hit, beloved by many but destined to reside on the fringes.

Plenty of musicians and people within the industry were paying attention to Phair, figuring out how to smuggle her disarming candor and easy vulgarity into the mainstream. As much as Phair’s music captured a specific strand of the American underground, she didn’t quite belong among the shaggy slackers that roamed across the country in the early 1990s. She was a wry, perceptive observer slightly out of phase with her surroundings, a disconnect that enabled her to see things other inhabitants couldn’t perceive. That mild dissonance resulted in probing, provocative art but it also suggested how her plainspoken storytelling could be molded to fit the needs of major labels. Alanis Morissette in particular seemed to retrace Phair’s footprints, unexpectedly assaulting a listener with profanity.

One thing was missing from Morissette, though: she didn’t sound like Liz Phair, nor did any of the singer-songwriters who immediately followed in her footsteps. These post-Phair rockers either were like Jen Trynin, whose worldview was forged long before Exile in Guyville, or they were willing to play by the rules of radio: Meredith Brooks balanced empowerment and pop hooks on “Bitch,” nearly having a number one hit in the process. The only mainstream comparison would be Sheryl Crow, who invited Liz to sing on “Soak Up the Sun” in 2002. 

By the early 2000s, Phair was firmly abandoning the indie rock scene that inspired and infuriated her. Phair made overtures toward the mainstream on 1998’s Whitechocolatespaceegg but an eponymous 2003 album found her seizing the opportunity to make modern pop with the Matrix, a team best known for working with Avril Lavigne. Phair got a hit with “Why Can’t I?” but the shift burned bridges, deeply wounding her critical standing for the better part of a decade. When she commemorated the 15th anniversary of Exile in Guyville in 2008, it seemed almost like a celebration of past glories.

Phair’s recent 25th Anniversary expansion of Exile in Guyville as a box containing the first official release of her lo-fi Girly-Sound tapes seemed to ignite a new interest in her music. Certainly, there is a tidal wave of new musicians that explore the musical and emotional territory sketched out by Phair in the early ’90s. What all of her modern disciples, save Sadie Dupuis and Bethany Cosentino — the Best Coast singer whose 2023 solo album Natural Disaster shares some sound and sensiblity with Phair’s mellow, mature Somebody’s Miracle — have in common is that they were too young to experience the Y2K backlash surrounding Liz Phair first hand. They grew up in a world where Exile in Guyville regularly placed in the Greatest Albums of All Time list, so they connected and absorbed it on its own artistic terms without falling prey to the subsequent shifts in fortune.

Exile in Guyville is unusually well-equipped to be heard outside of its original context, as it’s almost an album sui generis: it may be of and for its time, yet it floats apart from its inspirations. This includes Exile on Main St., the 1972 double-LP from the Rolling Stones that provided a guide for Phair’s construction of the album. The connection to the Stones seems as much a publicity hook as creative process. Phair at times channels both Mick Jagger and Keith Richards — she’s as comfortable in her sexuality as Mick, and the ringing riff of the opening “6’1″” carries the punch of Keith’s open chords. But set the two records up side by side and gaps immediately become apparent — the hypnotic drone of “Glory” has nothing to do with the greasy blues of “Shake Your Hips,” nor does the grimy “Casino Boogie” seem the basis for “Dance of the Seven Veils.” What Phair truly gleaned from the Stones is the value of sequencing and pacing. Exile in Guyville doesn’t just move at a rapid clip; it shifts tones and perspectives in ways that are emotionally intuitive. Countering the existentially sad “Explain It to Me” and weary “Canary” with the sinewy simmer of “Mesmerizing” isn’t simply lightening the mood — it opens up a different possibility of feeling.

That sense of intimate daring, conveyed as much through the skeletal, vivid music as through songs that read like short stories, is the chief element utilized by those influenced by Phair. Some are better at capturing this quicksilver feeling in their songwriting; others turn to band interactions or impressionist productions. But the common denominator is that all these tricks were learned through close-listening to Exile in Guyville.

Featured Image: Phair live in 1993. (Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc.)

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