Nash Kato was the swaggering singer-guitarist of the rising Chicago band Urge Overkill in the early '90s when he and his bandmates would hang out at Wicker Park's Rainbo Club, and, he recalls, a petite young woman was always hitting them up for beers "in a somewhat adorable way."
So Kato was perplexed when he got a fact-finding call from the indie label Matador Records asking about a new artist.
"They called me in a frenzy, just like, 'Do you know this Liz Phair?'" Kato says. "And I'm thinking, well, I know a Liz Phair. I didn't see how they could possibly be one and the same."
Not only were they, but Phair's album was addressed in large part to Kato and what he represented to a Winnetka native who had a crush on him. The album also harbored many more complex thoughts and feelings about female-male dynamics. Not only that, but Phair's "Exile in Guyville," which took its name in part from the Urge Overkill song "Goodbye to Guyville," would become the most talked-about album of what turned out to be a watershed summer for Chicago rock.
Yes, 20 years have passed since that summer of 1993. June 8 saw the release of Urge Overkill's major-label debut, "Saturation," and an even bigger commercial breakthrough arrived July 27 in the Smashing Pumpkins' major-label debut, "Siamese Dream." The Pumpkins, like Urge and fellow local bands Material Issue, Eleventh Dream Day and the Jesus Lizard, had been building a sizable indie following in and beyond Chicago, so their ascensions felt like natural progressions.
But on June 22 Matador released "Guyville," which eclipsed the cultural impact of those seasoned bands' releases, if not necessarily their sales. ("Guyville" has sold 467,000 copies, "Saturation" 277,000 and "Siamese Dream" 4.9 million, according to Nielsen SoundScan.)
Exploring a young female perspective on sexuality and identity with a frankness, sharpness, explicitness, anger and humor rarely heard on record up to that time — with the 26-year-old singer's unschooled vocals spilling hard truths in a deadpan or occasionally manipulated voice over spare arrangements built around her unconventional guitar parts — the album became a rallying cry for listeners grateful that someone was expressing what it was like to be a woman in a kind of Guyville.
The album topped the Village Voice's annual national critics' Pazz & Jop poll as the year's best album, beating out Nirvana's "In Utero" and P.J. Harvey's "Rid of Me" ("Siamese Dream" landed at No. 11, "Saturation" at No. 16), and it was Spin magazine's album of the year as well. Then-Village Voice critic Ann Powers wrote that "Guyville" spoke "the truth for women trying to figure it out these days."
Phair's follow-up albums "Whip-Smart" (1994) and "whitechocolatespaceegg" (1998) contained insightful, tuneful rock/pop but couldn't match the debut's zeitgeist-seizing power. And when she has tried on new stylistic hats, such as working with the slick, youth-chasing Matrix production team on "Liz Phair" (2003) or rapping goofily on "Funstyle" (2010), she has gotten slammed in language that implies betrayal, something like, "The raw, honest artist of 'Exile in Guyville' is giving us this?"
Such are the perils of making music over which fans feel deep, deep ownership.
Yet the shadows cast by "Guyville" extend beyond Phair's career. It's no longer a novelty for female singers to address sexual issues candidly, and a line could be drawn from "Guyville" to Lena Dunham's HBO series "Girls," with its unflinching views on young female sexuality and its devil-may-care attitude about making the characters likable. Dunham, like Phair, attended Oberlin College in Ohio.
Phair, now 46, doesn't revisit "Guyville" as if taking a victory lap. "I didn't feel like that period was a happy one for me," she says from her Los Angeles-area home, "and I sort of spent my life learning to be a better-balanced, less angry individual."
Yet she, Kato and "Guyville" producer Brad Wood returned to "Guyville" in separate conversations to piece together how this young visual artist managed to make an album for the ages.
Phair had home-recorded a much-copied and praised series of cassettes called "Girly Sound" that came to the attention of Matador co-owner Gerard Cosloy around the time she called him to try to get on his label. She'd also, in a non-girlfriendy way, moved into the Ukrainian Village apartment of John Henderson, who owned the local label Feel Good All Over Records and played the cassettes for Wood, co-owner of the nearby Idful Studios.
A wowed Wood signed on to record her, but Henderson and Phair butted heads at early sessions, so Henderson departed. Meanwhile, Phair decided to configure her album — which would feature some reworked "Girly Sound" songs, some newer songs and some yet-to-be-written songs — as a track-by-track response to the Rolling Stones' landmark 1972 double album "Exile on Main Street," which she'd recently come across.
Phair: I was very academic in my approach to it. I'm like, I'm going to make little symbols to describe certain types of songs or certain types of feels, and then I'm going to put these symbols next to all the "Exile on Main Street" songs, and then I'm going to put these symbols next to my songs … and I would try to match them up. I was also stoned, but it made sense to me.
Wood: I thought she was pushing it a little bit to find a correlation between some songs, but it didn't really matter. The pacing of the album is pretty great, I think, and it was a great template to have.