“He Heard, She Heard” features a Generation-X man and a Generation-Y woman providing their perspectives on important albums from their times. Selections will have had an impact either critically, commercially, or else personally.
Liz Phair and I are fellow Gen-Xers, born a few weeks and a few hundred miles apart. We were both 26 when Exile in Guyville was released in 1993. It became all the rage with critics, hitting #1 on the polls by both the Village Voice and Spin magazine. It was slightly notorious for her frank use of language and claimed to be a song-by-song response to The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., though I could never make the connections. The wide-ranging sound of indie pop/rock music had to be an oasis for females as grunge and hip hop, mainly fronted by males, dominated the airwaves. Phair wasn’t treading new ground as the Riot Grrrl movement and artists like Tori Amos before her had already begun opening doors, but she boldly busted right in with a double-album debut that screamed to be heard. The album fell out of print and is being re-released in honor of its 15th anniversary as part of her new recording deal with Dave Matthews’ ATO label, allowing me to opportunity to revisit it.
What I really enjoy about the album is how Phair puts her honest, raw emotions on display. Right away we hear in “6’1” that she loves her life “And hated you.” In Dance of the Seven Veils” she wants her fellow out of the business so bad she repeatedly threatens him with violence and death. Even with that opening, it’s still shocking to hear her explain “I ask because I'm a cunt in spring.” No matter how many times I hear it I always pause and wonder if I heard her right.
The opening lyrics on “Canary” wound be playful and sexy elsewhere. “I jump when you circle the cherry/ I sing like a good canary/ I come when called/ I come, that's all.” However the stark piano and Liz’ melancholy vocals reveal the real story taking place underneath, assuring no surprise when the chorus of “Send it up on fire/ Death before dawn” hits the listener.
“Fuck and Run” is an amazing story. It starts with the narrator waking up in a guy’s arms, repeating mistakes as she looks for a boyfriend, “The kind of guy who makes love cause he's in it.” It’s something many can identify with when looking for a relationship, but who find themselves repeating the bad patterns, like the title, as they grasp what they deny is out of reach. It’s been a long time running for the narrator who first declares this has been going on since she was 17, only to later correct the record and state this has been going on since she was 12, which is an extra punch in the gut.
“Mesmerizing” hits like a slap in the face when she declares “You said things I wouldn't say” but she reveals a universal to all in a relationship. “I wanna be mesmerizing too/…mesmerizing to you” because you want to be everything to the other person, including their sexual desire. “Flower” has Liz providing two different lines of vocals, one repeating the same verse, over odd guitar noises as she explicitly details what she wants to do in terms rarely heard in a song from either gender.
But women aren’t completely innocent as the next track “Girls! Girls! Girls” finds the narrator making it clear “I take full advantage/ Of every man I meet/ I get away almost every day/ with what the girls call…murder.” Here, Liz shows the human tendency to take for granted what we have while trying to get what we want. Then when we get it, we sometimes learn too late it wasn’t what we needed. “Johnny Sunshine” left the narrator with nothing, and in “Divorce Song” the couple continually hurt each other.
The music by Liz Phair and Brad Wood, both who produced the album, is fantastic. The sounds and moods change throughout, always keeping the music fresh and alive.
Included in this Deluxe Edition are three unreleased tracks from the recording sessions and a DVD featuring the documentary that Liz made about the album. She interviews people involved the album’s creation and release as well as peers from the Chicago music scene, but the most intriguing are the women who embraced the album when it came out who talk about what it meant to them.
When Liz Phair’s album Exile in Guyville was released, I was young. Too young to date, I don’t even think the word “sex” was a part of my vocabulary. Originally released in 1993, I have heard that this album changed the way that solo female vocalists were portrayed, giving them a voice that was not always so pretty. Recently re-released with all original songs, B-sides, and an extra DVD, Exile in Guyville is now an album that I can listen to and understand. At first, it seems dated but it grows into a necessary addition to anyone’s collection of music that appreciates the sounds, the importance and influence of early nineties music.
Exile in Guyville plays like diary entries, each song is a small tribute to different men and situations that she had found herself in. It is a simple pop-punk rock album driven by her straightforward, yet relatable lyrics and simple vocal patterns.
The first song on the album, 6’1”, sets the tone for the entire record. With a simple three-piece band, Phair strums the electric guitar and sings in a way that is not really angry, or too passionate about it, but more regretfully retrospective about the whole thing. As though she is pissed off to even be singing these things.
“Dance of the Seven Veils” has Phair singing about being a “real cunt in spring.” She is harsh, to the point and makes no apologies for it. The song then begs the question of why the relationship is not working.
“Fuck and Run” is angry from the title. But the song is a sad tale of the miserable events that happen when you break up with someone, but continue to see him after the relationship.
“Divorce Song” is a great song dedicated to those women that have tried to be friends with their lovers. Very simply, she is taking all of her mistakes and putting them to simple guitar strumming. Making a very affective call to women.
“Mesmerizing” would have to be my favorite song on the record. Here there is an amazing guitar line that beats home the words “I want to be mesmerizing to you.” The song is desperate and the music is a perfect accompaniment as the guitar lick repeats over and over.
Phair is known for her choice of language, it being brutally honest about all things feminine. But really, I took to her vulnerability and insecurity that comes across when all the instruments drop away and it is just her and her guitar. Today many women pick up their acoustic and begin strumming away about their problems, but Phair is different. There is nothing acoustic or folk about this. There is no pretty filter over her voice. She doesn’t strum her guitar gently. This is raw, selfish, and intense. It is hard at first to get into. But for anyone that enjoys simple punk rock songs and female singers, they will like this.
I may have been too young when Exile in Guyville first came out, but that does not mean I do not appreciate what it did for female artists today and understand the importance it has in music. This is an album that you must be in the mood for, but if you are feeling it, it’s perfect.