Liz Phair – Girly-Sound to Guyville

Liz Phair was one of the most divisive musical figures of the 1990s. Well before the term “hater” had entered the common lexicon, she had folks taking sides over her authenticity and rabble rousing. Fortunately, much of this drama was confined to Phair’s insular Chicago indie scene – the “Guyville” she enshrined in the title of her debut – leaving most of the country to focus on the merits of her music.

Exile in Guyville remains as sharp and remarkable as it was in 1993, a perfect storm of a debut. But the story behind this 25th anniversary edition resides in the stuff that surrounds it. Much of Guyville was sourced from a trio of 1991 cassettes Phair had recorded in her bedroom with nothing but her guitar and a hushed voice. She dubbed these tapes Girly-Sound, and to call them self-released would be an overstatement – they were mainly shared with friends, and since Phair wasn’t yet playing out there were no merch tables to serve as distribution points.

A few of these 38 tracks eventually saw the light of day as b-sides, but for the most part they were available only as nth-generation copies passed among zealots. The complete set now accompanies the proper debut for Girly-Sound to Guyville, along with a highly entertaining oral history driven by Phair in concert with Brad Wood and Casey Rice, the two Chicago musicians/studio rats who helped bring her bedroom recordings to life.

Phair knew how to play the media right from the start. Her claim that Guyville was a song-by-song rebuttal to Exile on Main Street crumbles under about 90 seconds of scrutiny, but it was a great talking point. This notion both returns and is shot down again in the oral history. There’s another compelling subplot involving an apartment mate/smalltime label operator who played a key role in getting Phair into a proper studio. The two had a mid-session falling out and he walked away from the project.

This spurned collaborator’s critique that Guyville is too polished and lacks the Girly-Sound magic comes off as sour grapes. Although most of the latter’s renditions were fully formed structurally, the album versions are less tentative, more concise (the original “Girls Girls Girls” runs seven minutes rather than 2:20) and grime-free. Wood infused them with a homey, economical sound that made him the go-to producer for a certain corner of approachable alt-poppers for a few years afterward. Wood also drummed in Shrimp Boat, an inexplicably overlooked Chicago band of the same period that kinda sorta morphed into the Sea and Cake.

As it turns out, only half of Exile in Guyville can be traced to the three Girly-Sound tapes, which technically carry the names Yo Yo Buddy Yup Yup Word To Ya Mutha, Girls! Girls! Girls! and Sooty. Classics like “Divorce Song” and “Fuck and Run” are represented; “6’1” and the aptly titled “Mesmerizing” – both of which make a decent case for the Main Street parallel – are not. There’s little doubt the remaining material is the work of the same artist on the same writing jag. Several of these vault tracks are worthwhile, though I’d be hard-pressed to say the inclusion of any of them would have improved Phair’s debut (“In Love w/Yrself” and “Easy” come closest). There are only a couple true throwaways, like the silly “White Babies.”

It says a lot about Phair’s writing hot streak – or the cold spell that followed – that she continued to return to this wellspring for years to come. Four songs from her solid but far less fascinating sophomore album Whip-Smart are drawn from the tapes. In this case, the early versions of tracks like “Go West” and “Shane” (which function more as Whip-Smart filler rather than standouts) are the better takes. Perhaps Phair and Wood were feeling too much pressure for album number two to up the ante and widen the audience.

Phair even revisited Girly-Sound to mine two tracks for 1998’s lackluster whitechocolatespaceegg, including highlight “Polyester Bride” – which like “Girls Girl Girls” is pared back drastically from its original running time. The less said about Phair’s cynical later career efforts the better, but it’s worth noting that Capitol Records has seized on the moment to reissue her 2003 self-titled reboot (the one that brought in big-name songwriting and production teams and yielded the teen pop hit “Why Can’t I?”) as well as Whip-Smart and whitechocolatespaceegg.

No revisionist history is necessary here. The sexual frankness of Liz Phair’s early lyrics has since become commonplace – without Liz’s guided tour of Guyville, I doubt Alanis Morissette would have coughed up her Jagged Little Pill two years later. But the raw emotion and melodic mastery of Phair’s Exile in Guyville shine through as intensely as ever. And even if she hasn’t come within a hectare of matching it, that doesn’t diminish the achievement.

Liz Phair
Girly-Sound to Guyville: The 25th Anniversary Box Set
[Matador]