Earlier this month, the New York Times published an interview with singer-songwriter Liz Phair about the anniversary and reissue of her landmark 1993 album Exile In Guyville. In it, the indie rock icon gave an answer that’s not only revealing, but also instructive when considering said reissue. “Sometimes,” Phair said in response to a question about the life-defining nature of Exile, “I feel like I work for Liz Phair.”
That sentiment gets at what’s so mesmerizing about Girly-Sound to Guyville: The 25th Anniversary Box Set: It’s an immersive snapshot of the Liz Phair that created one of the great musical works of 1990s; the Liz Phair who was forever changed by sudden success, and one that the real Liz Phair has seemingly been trying to outrun ever since.
That’s a testament to a well-constructed collection, one not cluttered by remixes, bonus tracks and other unnecessary add-ons. Girly-Sound to Guyville simply compiles a remastered Exile and restored versions of Phair’s three pre-Exile DIY cassettes released under the name Girly-Sound (plus a book with an oral history of the album, photos, essays and other cool stuff).
The remaster of Exile succeeds in its main job: To not dull the brilliance of the original album, which Phair designed as a track-by-track response to Exile on Main Street by ur-dudeband the Rolling Stones. Its 18 tracks sound as crisp and vital as ever.
The treasure trove here is the three Girly-Sound tapes, which are consistently raw in sound quality but remarkable as historical documents. There are 37 tracks in total, almost all of them constructed solely out of strummed acoustic guitar and Phair’s embryonic alto (often too low in her register). Many were rearranged and re-recorded by Phair and her longtime producer Brad Wood for Exile and its follow-ups, 1994’s Whip-Smart and 1998’s Whitechocolatespaceegg. Some have been officially released (on the 1995 EP Juvenilia, for example) in Girly-Sound form. All have circulated among hardcore Phair fans for years.
The strongest of the three tapes is the first one, presented here as Yo Yo Buddy Yup Yup Word To Ya Mutha, which boasts future album highlights like “Shane” and “Johnny Sunshine” alongside some of the very best rare tracks in this set. The tender “Don’tholdyrbreath” is classic Phair: sweet, heartbroken and confused. “I won’t find anyone,” she sings against slow, tinny guitar chords, “who loves me enough to make you look bad.” Later, the desperately funny “One Less Thing” and the tumbling chorus of “In Love w/Yrself” end Yo Yo on a very high note.
The other two tapes—Girls! Girls! Girls! and Sooty—are grab bags full of Phair’s tiny triumphs and favorite tricks. The latter is more concise, highlighted by the mild surf vibes of “Gigolo,” the simmering anger that underpins “Easy,” and a skeletal version of Exile highlight “Flower” — arguably the only song on Girly-Sound to Guyville that bests its future studio-assisted counterpart. (Blasphemy, I know.)
Girls! Girls! Girls! bogs down under the weight of a few seven-minute-long songs, although “Ant In Alaska” features one of Phair’s quintessential gut-punch lines: “You’d tell me, wouldn’t you, if we needed to talk?” And it’s cool to hear a primitive take on “Polyester Bride,” aka the lead single on Whitechocolatespaceegg eight years later. Like many Girly-Sound tracks, the difference between the two reflects well on Brad Wood as a producer, Phair’s pop instinct and the duo’s fruitful working relationship.
Those little rearrangements are like Easter eggs all over Girly-Sound to Guyville. There’s an extra verse in “Fuck and Run,” a slower tempo for “Go West” and a thankfully expunged stewardess bit from “Bomb,” which appeared later on Exile as “Stratford-on-Guy.” And while the album version of “Whip-Smart” lifted its chorus from Malcolm McLaren’s 1983 song “Double Dutch,” the demo features a more faithful take, with Phair mimicking the original’s “ebo, ebonettes” jump-rope chant. That’s fun and interesting, not to mention typical of her workstyle at the time: Girly-Sound songs reference kids’ ditties (“Miss Lucy had a steamboat, the steamboat had a bell” and “I’m a little teapot”), traditional tunes (“White Babies” apes the melody of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean”) and contemporary pop and rock, such as Betty Everett’s ‘60s hit “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s In His Kiss)” and The Jesus & Mary Chain’s “Head On.”
Taken as a whole, Girly-Sound to Guyville is a dizzying deep dive into Phair’s world before her breakthrough, and at times, it comes off like one of those bulletin boards in a cop drama, covered in photos and colorful push pins, with string connecting the dots. For folks who’ve loved and lived with Phair’s music for the past quarter-century, it will be endlessly fascinating. But even for the unfamiliar, this is a foundational work of indie rock worthy of careful attention.