Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein on “Exile in Guyville”

Sleater-Kinney‘s Carrie Brownstein has been blogging for NPR for several months now, and, in honor of the upcoming 15th anniversary re-release of Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, she’s recently posted an account of her experiences listening to the record for the first time back in 1993. It’s well worth reading, for fans of Liz Phair and Sleater-Kinney both.

Exile in Guyville was one of the first indie rock albums I ever heard—I bought it in 1994, after having seen the video for Whip-Smart‘s “Supernova” on MTV. As a teenage boy in Decatur, Illinois, I didn’t have any real ability to put Phair’s music in context. Her idiosyncratic guitar-playing, stripped-down lo-fi arrangements, flat notes, and barbed delivery were revelatory for me—I’d never heard anything like it, except perhaps occasionally after midnight on 120 Minutes, watching with the volume down low and my ear pressed up to the television’s speaker because I really wasn’t supposed to be up so late on a schoolnight. Exile—along with records like the Replacements’ Let It Be, The Velvet Underground and Nico, and Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation—expanded my sense of what was possible in music.

Phair’s lyrics also described a world far outside of my experience—adult in its themes and concerns, and expressed with a degree of frankness that I found titillating, fascinating, and also slightly uncomfortable. For a 14-year-old, any foul-mouthed, sexually explicit record is thrilling—and though that was part of Exile‘s appeal for me, I definitely gave it far closer attention than I did any of the various juvenile and sleazy albums that had entered my collection primarily because they possessed a “Parental Advisory” sticker and a reputation for being unsavory. Exile was the kind of record that I would listen to again and again with my headphones on—because I liked it a great deal, and also because I knew that I didn’t understand it very well. It made me want to discover new meanings in the record’s depths—I was struggling to make sense of everything that was being said and played, to understand what this strange new music was all about. (An aside: I wonder sometimes if teenagers today have this same kind of experience at all—of hearing a record for the first time and finding it shockingly, amazingly new—now that all kinds of music are easily available everywhere all the time.)

Listening to Exile today, it still sounds great—though of course my reaction to the album will always be wrapped up in all those hours I spent alone in my bedroom with my headphones on, listening with a uniquely teenage intensity of focus and emotional engagement.


4 Responses to “Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein on “Exile in Guyville””

  1. 1 poetloverrebelspy May 5, 2008 at 5:05 PM

    I really liked this post.

    One of the issues raised by the increase of online song purchases is that fewer people would experience albums in the same way — listening to the tracks, as put in order by the artist, over and over as they’d intended. You have any sense of this? Are “the kids these days” just one-track wonders on shuffle, or do they enjoy the ups and downs of the well-balanced album as we did?

    Any other albums you would identify as a similar experience, even through adult eyes (ears?)?

  2. 2 goodreadings May 5, 2008 at 7:21 PM

    You know, I’m really not sure what the kids are up to these days–how they’re using music, and what they think and feel about it. The conventional wisdom is that the shuffle rules, and that the kids are happy to cherrypick the tunes they like best from download services (legal and otherwise), and don’t pay too much attention to old-fashioned ideas like the album. But at the same time, today’s dominant music criticism site, Pitchfork, is very, very much album-centered, and as best I can tell, the indie kids (and there are way more of them than there used to be) are still interested in listening to full albums. (They aren’t particularly loyal to specific bands, though–the hot new things come and go very quickly.)

    Given that I grew up with the album, and love the form dearly, it would be easy for me to deplore any general trend of the kids failing to hold it in the same reverence. But at the same time, it’s important to remember that the album has only been the dominant form since the late 1960s. Kids listening to the iPod on shuffle isn’t that fundamentally different (in some ways) than kids putting quarters into the jukebox to hear the latest top 40 rock songs in the late 50s or early 60s, or putting their ears to the radio to hear the latest sides from the big swing bands in the 40s. I do love the album’s artistic possibilities–the chance it offers for a great artist or band to put together a substantial, coherent work, the equivalent of a novel or a film. But all the same, the song has almost always driven even the greatest and most unified rock (and, for that matter, jazz) albums.

    There are definitely other albums that had a profound effect on me as an adolescent: most notably, I think, “The Velvet Underground & Nico” and the Replacements’ “Let It Be,” which came to me from my uncle one year in what had to have been one of the very best Christmas gifts I’ve ever received. As for adult life: the closest I’ve come to having a similar experience is not with an album, but with live music. Sometime in 2001, I went to see the Vandermark 5 play at the Empty Bottle here in Chicago, and was completely blown away–impressed, astonished, amazed. I’d never heard jazz like that before–it change my expectations, and laid the groundwork for what has become a deep love of avant-garde jazz in the years that have followed. (No doubt I’ll make some posts here about Vandermark sooner or later–the guy puts out at least six or seven records a year with his various groups, so I won’t lack for opportunity). …but in general, I don’t know–my musical interests continue to evolve, but very, very rarely do I hear something that really shakes me up and transforms my sense of what music can be.

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  1. 1 Which Albums Have Shaped You? « Geek Buffet Trackback on May 7, 2008 at 9:12 AM

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