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“Highlighting a Couple of Key, Shocking Moments I Experienced in My Last Listen to Exile in Guyville.”

Liz Phair is, uh, the animal that Hugh Hefner created, if you will, product of Willamette, Illinois, a north Chicago suburb, and of course beholden to the famous line from her breakthrough album Exile in Guyville, “Fu** and run / Even when I was 12”. As is implied within the title, then, Exile in Guyville [1], as is implied by the name, is a very sexual album, one that shows her tit on the cover, one on which “Fu** and Run” is the most-streamed song on Spotify and four million (which could have as much to do with the grey masses of humanity as Phair herself, mind you), and generally probably not a record you should put on on a first date. 

Lo and behold, despite all this, it still seems to get lumped in with, by the grey masses, yes, the “indie scene,” as if Phair is some goodie choir girl, or if she never discovered Boyz II Men, or something like that. Whatever… I’m not here to explain that but I am here to reiterate that it’s an album with a lot of depth to it, as the rampant critical acclamation should indicate. It juxtaposes rife, dirty sexuality with this sort of deep musicality and eccentricity, that is, as it were, which I will in part diagram with the upcoming tidbits that I’ve chosen to emphasize for this post. For whatever reason, I hadn’t listened to it in a while, favoring “Shatter” and also “Go West” and the title track from Whip-Smart and “Uncle Alvarez” from whitechocolatespaceegg for playlist material, so these occurrences manifested as extra jarring, in my mind, as a result and to a hilarious extent. 

The first one is, within the song “Dance of the Seven Veils,” the lines “So Johnny my love / We got us a witness / Now all we gotta do is get a preacher / He can probly skip the ‘until death’ part / ’Cause Johnny my love you’re already dead”. This seems to generally be a track that the primary commentators shy away from, just from, rightfully, not having any clue what the fu** it might be about. The best guess I could venture would be that she was watching a bunch of Mafia or mob movies and it just kind of weighed on her — the immorality of the whole thing, that and I’m guessing she was doing a lot of hallucinogens at the time (I’m pretty sure the DVD said something about their habits of obtaining acid in the days leading up to this songwriting, which is by and large none too surprising). Actually she makes one other reference to being “already dead” on that album and that’s “Divorce Song.” This second mention, I THINK, though I might be wrong, helps to cement the comedic effect of this initial “already dead” diagnosis as something relating to a spiritual death, which seems very Bukowskian, to me, frankly. 

The second tidbit on Exile in Guyville I’d like to point out, or to rehash, as it were, is the set of lines in “Canary” of “I clean the house / I put all your books in an order / I make up a colorful border / I clean my mouth / ’Cause froth comes out”. “Canary” is a pretty nice little number, really, as far as I can recollect the only tune on Guyville that utilizes piano as the primary vehicle of the music. Basically, it plays as a metaphor for womanhood, I’d say, tying in the “singing” aspect applicable to Phair but more so diagramming the stifling and deadening “roles for women” our society has a way of unfurling, hopefully to less of an extent now since the Me Too movements and various motions toward women in the workplace and equal pay. But the idea with those bizarre and hilarious lines above is that Phair is driven psycho by the roles that society has planned for her — they’re repetitious and it’s like being in a cage, almost, as an animal which would be more likely to experience such “foaming at the mouth.” 

The third moment of complete revelation and revampment of my fandom of this album was the guitar part of “Girls! Girls! Girls!” It’s this technique of close strumming of a given chord rapidly, in triplets of what are already pretty quick quarter notes, all done on this almost impossibly jangle-y, garage-y sounding electric guitar (if I had to guess I’d say it was a hollow body Fender Squier Telecaster both played through an and also mic’d up acoustically). The funny thing is that it effectively works as rock music, even without any percussion in the song, partly because of the percussive, rhythmically relentless blueprint of that guitar part. Also, unrelated, but kind of of note anyway, are those background sound bites of Phair yelling into the microphone (rendered barely audible by mixing, that is), of things like “Better check with me daddy!” after the official, fully noticeable line of “If you think you’re it you better check with me”.

“Shatter,” track 13, has always been my favorite song on the album, and probably still is thanks in large part to that liquid, sublime guitar sound that Phair achieves on this track and others, maximized, to an extent, especially by that particular ballad. Everybody knows #14 and “Flower,” I’m sure, with its racy sexuality, and then I’d always really liked the last two songs two, so I’d sort of forgot all about numbers 15 and 16, our little red-headed step child portion of the album. #15 is “Johnny Sunshine” and kind of cracked me up for Phair’s cavalier, rhythmically sound tone of voice in delivery, which sort of obfuscates this song’s status as anything earnest, or denoting an actual, real episode of heartbreak. Later she slows the song down, shows off that killer guitar sound and exhibits a sort of vocal caterwaul, but at its core, “Johnny Sunshine” is like this hilariously conventional 6-8 Chicago Blues number where I can envision Phair imagining herself as some Bo Diddley figure, bemoaning the loss of a loved one with some snuff juice in mouth, to recompense for the lack of wheat stalk within her urban environs. The last shocker to me was “Gunshy,” with both a tempo and key change entering each chorus and the almost frighteningly angular, schizophrenic lyrics with high-stakes themes and vague references to suppressed violent urges, all the way through. 

Save for a couple stragglers, I’ve pretty much taken you, here, through every moment where I thought to myself, I am an idiot for not remembering this or talking about it on my blog at some point, not that I haven’t been generally laudatory of this album, by and large. But I just gotta do this… IIHH BETTER THAN PJ HARVEY? I read one online article where this dude was saying Liz Phair “rips PJ a new one” and… I mean that might be putting it a little strongly, not to mention a little lewdly, but I do think Guyville is better than MOST of PJ Harvey’s albums. I do not, however, think it’s better than Rid of Me (her last album before Guyville), because Rid of Me, on the right speakers, is a religious experience and not only that but one within genre, which this time is grunge rock. Uh Huh Her, with its heartbreaking emotion and angular sequencing, is also I’d say better and Let England Shake with its psychedelic approach to melancholy nationalism is like EXACTLY as good as Exile in Guyville. I’m talking, like, they’re bot a 9.8 out of 10, to use Pitchfork’s old scale. And if you think I’m lying, go ahead and listen to ’em, and if you don’t agree with me, well, we’ll just have to see who rips who a new one, won’t we? 

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[1] Truth be told, I’d never made the connection that it were a reference to the Stones’ Exile on Main St. until I watched the DVD that came with the ’08 deluxe version and saw Phair detailing her meeting with Mick Jagger where he “forgave” her for using the title. 

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