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Phair Play

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Fifteen years after the release of her revolutionary album Exile in Guyville, Liz Phair performs all of the album's 18 tracks in Chicago -- with mixed results

I was 14 and incredibly sheltered, so I listened to "Fuck and Run" first.

The vocals piped in unceremoniously -- but soon the pissed-off, smart girl with bunny teeth on the album cover started whining, "I want a boyfriend / I want all the stupid old shit, like letters and sodas." She droned the chorus too, except the conversational lyrics warped into urgency with revved cynicism: "Fuck and run, even when I was 17. Fuck and run, even when I was 12." The swear words titillated my 119-pound body, if only for a moment, but the thuds of swagger, candor, and cruel, unscrupulous self-deprecation felt twisted, real, and so right. And refreshingly unlike so many indie assholes of yore. It was just so unpretentious. This was a woman in hell, and of course that sounded like heaven.

I bought Liz Phair's 1993 album Exile in Guyville knowing only its distinction as a song-by-song response to the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street and that it was a classic. I certainly couldn't find that person living in my subdivision or school district in 2001, but he became me anyway, especially when I started amassing Phair's demos and bootlegged concerts. While the Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot recently called Phair's audience "disenfranchised young women like herself," I contend there have always been half as many gay guys like me lining up for her blow job-queen ditties. They certainly arrived early in striped droves for Liz Phair's Tuesday show at Chicago's Vic Theatre, where she played Exile in Guyville's 18 tracks, in order, to commemorate the album's 15th anniversary and new special rerelease. I was there too, hoping Liz could redeliver my favorite album with cool verve and a piquant batch of new tricks.

If you've ever seen Liz Phair live, you know three important things: (1) Liz Phair can barely sing. But that's not important, since she snarls her best songs anyway. (2) Liz Phair's guitar skills aren't enviable, but they're fine -- and again, who cares. (3) The woman, now 41, remains a silver bullet of certifiable hotness, even if her black short shorts, leathery vest, and peekaboo fuchsia bra produce that musty air of Mrs. Robinson-visits-Forever 21. It's all these things -- plus the backlash of that 2003 self-titled pop album with the catchy but embarrassing single "Why Can't I" -- that has transformed her audience from the Gen X hipster gallery to, say, more people in my age-bracket who recognize Phair and Guyville as historic artifacts. On the floor at the Vic, I stood by two speed-talking, 20-something homos who used the term "social constructs," a loudmouth North Sider who insisted Guyville ranked as "one of the best rock albums ... just ever," and then a few ladies too. Still, the gay gents dominated at least my five-foot radius, so stand corrected, Greg Kot.

Phair arrived onstage almost on time, backed by her typical band of quiet dudes who tune the instruments, play the songs, and emit scheduled smiles every five minutes or so. I stood five feet from the stage, mesmerized by Phair's miniature stature and glittering cleavage. She sighed about "being home" (Phair's a Chicago staple -- though a much-criticized one -- and native of north suburb Winnetka) before ripping into "6'1," the album's opener and most Stones-y composition. While her vocals sounded tinny amid overblown amplification, Phair conjured the snide contempt of the old tune. In fact, the performance felt exactly like the original version, which reveals the problem with strumming out a classic album onstage: You're indebted to the purists. All too easily, I began to drown out the "live" part of Liz's performance and just coast on what felt like a CD recreation, and not a dynamic tribute.

Not that the CD rocks any less than it used to. The next two songs, "Help Me Mary" and "Glory," are among the album's ballsiest and finest; the former chronicles a demoralized woman's disgust with her housemates (over a fabulous pop hook), and the latter stands in despondent awe of a clubgoing alpha male's "really big tongue." I knew every word, and I was definitely not alone.

Phair added coquettish cadence to "Dance of the Seven Veils," a vulgar, Bonnie-and-Clyde retelling of the opera Salome. "I'm a re-e-eal cunt in spring, you can rent me-e-e by the hour," Phair cooed, holding the cheeky high notes extra long, which garnered more whoops and whistles from the audience than any other moment that night. "Dance of the Seven Veils" epitomizes Guyville's strange ability to become grander and more devastating within its quieter moments, like a sneak attack of intimacy in a shoot-'em-up caper. After a few forgettable retellings of the triumphant "Never Said," the pulpy hero's-tale satire of "Soap Star Joe," and the fame-machine misery of "Explain It to Me," Phair revitalized the show with a stark version of "Canary," the ghostly, piano-only ballad of sexual humiliation and wifedom. "I sing like a good canary / I come when called," Phair chirped, teetering into some flat, numb, excellent nonsinging.

Between songs, Phair spoke scarcely and forcedly -- sometimes about Guyville's inception in Chicago being "a special time," or scattershot recollections of getting stoned and sitting around her apartment. Maybe all that smoke explains why she seems to actually remember so little of the early '90s. In the new Guyville reissue, there's an accompanying DVD documentary in which Phair interviews the major players in Chicago's old Wicker Park indie scene and the producers and collaborators behind Guyville. And thank God she spoke to them, because half of these people needed to remind Phair of trips she took to Los Angeles or how her early gigs went. The lapse in memory evinced how much distance Phair purposely placed between herself and her founding grounds with her subsequent albums and career decisions. Maybe, even in theory, this concert was more awkward, or apologetic, than intended.

I pressed on, still nodding with allegiance throughout the latter half of the concert, even if Sun- Times critic Jim DeRogatis loomed in the left-hand balcony, obviously not amused. I found myself focusing on the lyrics of the remaining songs, which were biggies: the self-deploring "Fuck and Run," the blistering breakup of "Divorce Song," and the still-infamous "Flower," which ends in a monotone "I'll fuck you till your dick is blue." As a high-schooler, I always thought that song received too much attention, particularly from critics, for its libidinous extremes and not for its main objective of mocking male sexual fantasy. Then came the moment of the night I most anticipated, the performance of "Johnny Sunshine," a riffing boom of relationship fallout, featuring caterwauls of "I've been hurt so badly," layered over muttered accusations such as, "You took the car / It was my favorite one ... / You killed the cat / Burned it in antifreeze." Still, the performers that night opted not to re-create that layering, and the song lost much of its original gruff momentum and delicate drop-off finale.

"Gunshy," another despondent wife's tale, and "Stratford-on-Guy," the literally transcendent piece about a cinematic airplane ride, redeemed the bland treatment of "Johnny Sunshine." Before the album's final cut, "Strange Loop," Phair uttered the most puzzling statement of the night: "I don't believe this song has ever been played live before," she said, rousing some anticipation.

I gawked. As I write this, I have two old live versions of "Strange Loop" on my computer. Was she just lying? Did she truly not remember she'd performed this song several times before? I couldn't reconcile her remark throughout the rest of the show, which wasn't necessary anyway considering her performance of that song felt like a note-by-note reiteration of the CD version.

Then Phair and her band did the "We're leaving the stage without an encore, we SWEAR" dance, just before Phair leaped back onstage for an encore. The last tracks included Whip-Smart's "Chopsticks," a new song about an ex-label head that sported a surprisingly not-too-grating "Ding dong, the witch is dead" chorus, and "Polyester Bride" off whitechocolatespaceegg. Phair announced at the top of the encore that she hadn't prepared anything extra to play, which is not what anyone wanted to hear. But "Chopsticks" is a hilarious tune, and "Polyester Bride" stands as a decent radio-ready number (off an underrated album, no less).

While Phair's memory of Guyville's heyday proved hazy, my recollection of the raw, hilarious, snide, and vulnerable album was illuminated throughout the show, even if the performance rarely did much to enhance my emotional commitment to the songs. On that new Guyville documentary DVD, a female fan describes the album as a "Fuck YOU" album. But when I tally up each great tune's impact, I realize it's more a motto of "Yeah, fuck you. But fuck me too," that Guyville croons. Luckily, that mantra qualifies as a steady, long-dependable way to react to high school life, adult life, and beyond -- which makes the album immortal, even though the concert ended, rather thankfully, after less than 90 minutes.

Ultimately, Guyville will outlast the snipes of betrayed Chicago scenesters, because in the end, we all clearly want the "stupid old shit" anyway.

Advocate Magazine - KehlaniAdvocate Magazine - Gus Kenworthy

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