Liz Phair has won. It’s been 25 years this month since the release of “Exile In Guyville,” her excoriating missive from the margins of the margins that made her into an instant underground legend, and the album remains as urgent and cutting as it was when it appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Its reputation has only grown in the years since, landing on best-albums-of-all-time lists and meriting a recent box-set reissue complete with the mythical Girly-Sound home demos that spawned it. It stands as a monolith in ’90s alternative culture, casting a shadow that reaches to today.
And Liz Phair has lost. The fact that “Exile” hasn’t been rendered quaint and dated in the last quarter century is as damning an assessment as anything of how dramatically it failed. Great, earthshaking female artists certainly continued to pop up: PJ Harvey and Hole ran alongside Phair, Alanis Morissette and Sleater-Kinney were just around the corner, and Lorde and St. Vincent make bracing records to this day, to name just a few. But rock music remains a boys’ club — in terms of who’s making it, who’s selling it, who’s writing about it, and who’s buying it — and addressing or even acknowledging the situation grows fraught and ugly quickly. (Don’t believe me? Ask a female music critic about her fan mail.) In 2018, Guyville remains, and women like Phair are still kicking at its walls from the outside.
So Phair’s Wednesday show at the Sinclair was both nostalgia and a renewal of vows, as it were. Having already exhausted a full-album playthrough of “Exile” for its 15th anniversary, she retrenched even further back, to the Girly-Sound era from before anyone even knew who Liz Phair was. Only four songs she performed Wednesday night (all “Exile” tracks) couldn’t be traced back to those tapes, and her instrumentation was demo-rudimentary, just two processed electric guitars. With rare exceptions — Connor Sullivan’s brittle lead figure poking out of “Mesmerizing,” his low bass-like notes underneath Phair’s high, mandolin-like chords in “Whip-Smart” — the two largely played in unison, down to the same chord voicings.
The bedroom arrangements meant that “6’1” ” missed some of the rudimentary rhythmic shifts that the drums gave the recording, but they also created new ones. In “Soap Star Joe,” Phair and Sullivan played the percussive chanks at the end of each chord as much as the chords themselves, and “Stratford-On-Guy” traded dynamics for momentum. And the ringing “Ant In Alaska” moved as if in slow motion.
Phair still reveled in being a provocateuse, coming out hard with the chugging gallop of “[Expletive] or Die” right at the top. But the simplicity of the instrumentation helped shine a light on a Phair trademark for which she nonetheless doesn’t often get much credit: her tendency to write gorgeous vocal melodies that sit too low for her voice, creating a thrilling tension. It could be heard in the soothing sway of “Whip-Smart” and in the aspirational regret of “[Expletive] and Run.”
It’s just one dimension among many that keeps “Exile” fresh and fully loaded, still heaving bombs at Guyville. But Phair seemed no wearier for the battle, ending every song with a wide-mouthed and occasionally wicked smile that showed that she thinks her magnum opus still has another 25 years in it.
Alone onstage with an electric guitar and a voice that mimicked Juliana Hatfield in both timbre and melodicism, Soccer Mommy opened as an almost direct line from Girly-Sound, in both presentation and casualness. “I’m super excited to be here,” Sophie Allison said in an expressionless monotone that matched the fact that her swirly, just-this-side-of-morose songs were ultimately a hair one-note.
With Soccer Mommy
At the Sinclair, Cambridge, WednesdayMarc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.