For decades, men have been able to do pretty much anything in rock music, from Bob Dylan’s less-than-stellar voice and looks to John Lennon’s use of the f word in “Working Class Hero.” By comparison, women have had to be more demure, relying on pretty faces and spectacular voices to succeed on the charts. It’s a terrible double standard, and while there are exceptions, it’s been the rule ever since the 60s brought on the male singer-songwriter.
Enter Liz Phair, standing all of five feet two inches tall, with a foul mouth and a renegade image. She wasn’t signed by Clive Davis at Arista Records because she didn’t look like Whitney Houston or sing like Celine Dion. Instead, she made her first album on an indie label. Exile in Guyville, culled from a few demo tapes, is a masterpiece full of unpredictable, truly independent sounds.
Sometimes Phair is armed only with an electric guitar; other times an eerie piano is the only accompaniment. She tosses aside all traditional songwriting models; sometimes the songs have no chorus, and sometimes there’s just a chorus and nothing else.
Exile in Guyville is biting, from the smart jangling guitars that kick off the album to the wonderful train wreck that accompanies the end of the final cut, “Strange Loop.” Phair is not blessed with a great voice, but her flat, sometimes emotionless delivery, coupled with biting lyrics, packs more punch than any earnest-sounding singer could possess. “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,” she sings in “Divorce Song.”
But it’s Phair’s ballads that express her true vulnerabilities. On the wistful “Explain It to Me,” she plays her guitar over a slow tom-tom; “Canary” features an echoing piano that plays while she sings with tongue firmly planted in cheek, “I come when called / I come, that’s all.”
With the lo-fi production — it sounds almost like Phair plugged in her guitar, pressed record on her tape player, and started playing — she is allowed to be honest, stripped bare of any artificiality. What’s left are raw emotions. “And whatever happened to a boyfriend / The kind of guy who tries to win you over?” she laments in “Fuck and Run.” And on “Shatter,” she sings, “Just being with you slapped me right in the face / Nearly broke me in two.”
Phair’s music is far from simple; her guitar playing is unique, finding chords where there shouldn’t be any and stringing them together for three-minute songs that fit the lyrics perfectly. On the previously mentioned “Shatter,” the guitar sings for a full two-and-a-half minutes before she begins singing. And on “Strange Loop,” the cacophony that builds at the end makes you lose sense of the cadence before Phair tones down the noise and her guitar finds the rhythm again, singing happily and giving us hope amid all the catharsis we’ve heard on previous songs. It’s a joyous moment.
Phair’s influence extends to Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth and groups like the Breeders and L7, and to a lesser extent, Alanis Morissette and Tori Amos. Phair eventually sought the mainstream, employing songwriters that had penned hits for such pop stars as Avril Lavigne, but Exile in Guyville, her response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, is just as much a classic as the precursor was.