Live: Liz Phair Returns to Guyville
And watch how fast I run to the sea
June 25, 2008
This is the fifteenth anniversary of the release of Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville, which means it's also probably the fourteenth anniversary of Liz Phair distancing herself from Exile in Guyville. A few years back, when she was working with Avril Lavigne song-doctors the Matrix, Phair was claiming in interviews that she'd never given a damn about that whole indie/underground willfully-obscure aesthetic, that she'd always wanted to make widescreen pop music. That's a claim I'd be inclined to believe from anyone else, but Exile in Guyville is too perfect a realization of that whole indie aesthetic. In fact, for me, it's possibly the most perfect realization, the one that goes a million miles toward at least explaining the existence of every godawful Pavement-clone still sending ironic noodles out into the world. Guyville had classic-rock slither and serious hooks, but it also had every last tenet of that aesthetic: muffled and pillowy production, flatly conversational vocals, lyrics that artfully but directly depicted very specific tangled-up feelings, jangly riffs, the vague sense that the singer was having a laugh at the listener's expense at least part of the time. For somebody who never gave a fuck about indie, Phair sure knew how to bring the pseudo-genre to its absolute platonic ideal. But she's still keeping up that contrarian streak even now; in the new Entertainment Weekly, she names Third Eye Blind's self-titled album her favorite lazy-Sunday LP, a choice guaranteed to piss off people who still care about such things even if she really genuinely does love Third Eye Blind. (And, I mean, she probably does; plenty of people do.)
And so given that decade-plus move away from Guyville, Phair's in sort of a weird position these days. Dave Matthews's ATO label has just reissued Guyville, and Matthews's semi-coherent stoned ramblings about the album are the second-best thing about the accompanying DVD. (The best: Phair's revelation that she wrote the whole album about preening, medallion-rocking, Neil Diamond-covering Urge Overkill frontman Nash Kato, who shows up on the DVD smoking a bong and looking supremely haggard. In any case, inspiring Guyville was the best thing Kato ever did, and I say that as someone who once tried to shoplift an Urge Overkill T-shirt from a suburban record store.) To promote that reissue, Phair played Guyville in its entirety at the Hiro Ballroom last night; she's doing it again tonight, but good luck getting in if you don't already have tickets. Amy Phillips's write-up of the Chicago show the night before had me shook; the way Amy wrote it, Phair was less visibly into her songs than anyone else in the room, with the possible exception of the door-staff. Maybe that was the case in Chicago, but it sure wasn't last night. Part of the reason must've been an absolutely rapturous crowd, one of the best I can remember being a part of. (These would be the rare shows where a heavy press presence actually meant the crowd was louder then it might've otherwise been; we rock critics love us some Guyville.) We cheered all through the damn show last night. When Phair announced that she needed to clip her nails really quick, we cheered nail clippers. And when she said that maybe she should just bite them off instead, we cheered nail-biting. "God, this is going by too fast," she said near the end. "I was so scared to do these shows cuz I was like [mock horror] 'Eighteen, all in order.'" Then she shrugged and launched into whatever song was next.
These shows where people play entire albums straight through are inevitably weird; like, why not just recreate the effect at home by playing the album and clapping in between songs? But Guyville is one of those few records that works perfectly in this context: right opener, right closer, right peaks, right valleys. And if you've heard the album as many times as I have and as many times as, I'm assuming, most of the people in the audience had, the transitions are so worn into your brain that it'd be even weirder hearing the songs out of order. So when the last notes of "Soap Star Joe" faded out, I got full-body goosebumps even before "Explain It to Me" started. "Explain It," which she dedicated to Kato if he was there, is my favorite song on Guyville and one of my favorite songs ever, but there are too many great moments on the album to bother listing here. It's a long album, but I can't imagine losing a single song from it. Phair's long had a rep for being unreliable live; I can remember it being one of the (incredibly dumb) reasons why some critics had trouble taking her seriously back when Guyville first came out. And she cracked a couple of jokes last night about not being able to remember old lyrics. And there were a few moments where she had to ask her band how a songs started or she flubbed a riff, but she's definitely got enough weight of presence to hold a stage. And my impression is that she's still invested in these songs, at least to the point where she could conjure the wry intensity necessary to drive them home. Her band faithfully recreated the album right down to its most minute production-touches: the sleighbell on "Divorce Song," the shaker on "Mesmerizing."
When it came time for an encore, she left the band behind and played a song apiece from her two almost-as-great followups: "Chopsticks" from Whip-Smart, "Polyester Bride" fromWhitechocolatespaceegg. She also played one new song, a falsetto-laced Stevie Nicks-ish thing with a whole lot of ire toward a dude or the music business or maybe a dude who works in the music business. I've never heard the two much-derided major-label albums Phair released this decade, even though I'm guessing I might like them, which says volumes about the psychological force of a Pitchfork 0.0. The new one sounded like nothing off Guyville, certainly, and I have no idea where Phair will go now that she's got this whole classic-reissue thing behind her. But I left last night's show near-dizzy with happiness, and whatever she does next, it'll at least warrant my attention.
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