I wish I was cool enough to say that I picked up Exile in Guyville the minute it came out, or that I'd been into Liz Phair in the Girly-Sound days before Exile was even finished. Sadly, I am not that cool.
My first memory of Exile was from around 1997, when I had a girlfriend who had a copy and referenced some of the songs. The relationship didn't last long, but it's nearly 20 years later and I'm still a big fan of Phair. Not a bad outcome, really.
Exile is so indie and lo-fi it almost hurts. It's less accessible than Whip-Smart, but more daring and entertaining.
When Phair sings "I be-eh-eh-et you fall in bed too easily" in "6'1"", you know this isn't an album that's had all the rough edges sandpapered off. The sound is stripped down and sounds a lot like the takes are live rather than a bunch of overdubs. But the guitar is crisp and clean, and it's got plenty of momentum.
"Dance of the Seven Veils" is just Phair and guitar, a sort of meandering song that flirts with some intensity but doesn't really explode. Fun note: Google Play tags "Fuck and Run" as explicit, but apparently nobody caught the "cunt in spring" lyric in "Dance."
"Never Said" is a by-the-numbers rock single that reminds me a wee bit of The Pretenders.
Much of the album has a sort of meandering, unstructured sound. "Explain it to Me," and "Canary" (for example) don't fit in the neat pop/rock song box. "Canary" is more like drifting along with some piano that gets more intense as the song goes on, but doesn't quite gel into a standard melody. And that's fine, Phair defies expectations in a pleasing way here.
Phair's voice is exceptionally raw on "Mesmerizing." Phair has often said that Guyville is a "response" to the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street. That's noticeable here, with a very Stones-y guitar sound. (Confession time: I've never listened to Main Street all the way through. Mea culpa.)
"Fuck and Run" is another straight-up rock/pop number that is impossible not to like. Phair's understated, somewhat flat, delivery is perfectly appropriate to the song. "I can feel it in my bones, I'm going to spend another year alone… fuck and run." The disappointment and weariness is palpable. Even so, Phair rises to the challenge to knock the chorus out of the park.
"Stratford-On-Guy" builds some serious tension and then actually explodes mid-song, and it's damn satisfying. The guitar here is sharp, clean, and raucous. Lots of fun.
Exile in Guyville has received accolades upon accolades, and deservedly so. It's still her best album (though I enjoy pretty much everything through Somebody's Miracle, and we don't talk about Funstyle), but her albums have been few and far between. Her last studio album came out in 2010, and I haven't seen any reports of a follow-up. It seems kinda unlikely we're going to get an Exile in Guyville II now, but I have my hopes.