Liz Phair, “Girly-Sound to Guyville: The 25th Anniversary Box Set”

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

Liz Phair’s 1993 debut Exile in Guyville is full of heroes and villains, and they’re generally the same person; the groundbreaking part, though, is that it’s often Phair examining her own behavior under a microscope as she tries to figure out how she ended up where she is. While she’s been burned, she’s also burned her fair share. As she sings on “Girls! Girls! Girls!,” “I take full advantage of every man I meet / I get away almost every day with what the girls call murder.” She recalls the guys who charmed her, the ones who fucked her over, and the ones she herself charmed and fucked over. It’s an equally biting and sensitive study in how (and when, and why) to play nice while growing up, and it’s what made the album a classic.

This twenty-fifth anniversary reissue also includes a trio of 1991 tapes that Phair recorded as Girly-Sound, much of which will sound familiar. A good chunk of Exile started there, and her later albums also included reworked versions of Girly-Sound material. Those cassettes were highly coveted when Phair first recorded them; bootlegs were traded among her friends in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood—a.k.a. Guyville—and beyond. The songs have since been released in fits and starts, but to have them so accessible and in one place is a real treasure.

Exile’s layers of natural conflict remain deep and recognizable, bolstered by the newly released songs. Desperation bumps up next to apathy, and there’s braggadocio alongside confusion and uncertainty. This is distilled expertly in “In Love w/Yself,” from the first Girly-Sound cassette Yo Yo Buddy Yup Yup Word To Ya Mutha. In it, Phair sings, “I held him close and I whispered in his ear and said / ‘Don’t be so in love with yourself, ’cause I’m not’ / And he said, ‘I know, don’t you think I know?’”

One of the best things about Exile, an album full of best things, is Phair’s vocal performance, which mimics the complexity of what she’s grappling with. She goes from matter-of-fact boredom to lilting high notes—often in a single song, like “Johnny Sunshine.” In a low, jaded voice, she delivers the litany of things he took from her: the car, the horse, the cat, the house. Above that, she sings, higher, “I think I’ve been taken / For everything I own.” Finally, the highest singsong voice sums it all up: “You left me nothing / You left me nothing / Johnny Sunshine.”

Phair was in her early to mid-twenties when she was writing all these songs, and the Girly-Sound material is as good as what’s on Exile—which is to say it’s brilliant. Her music remains exactly as relatable, smart, and genuine in 2018 as it was in 1993. Navigating your twenties on the loose in a big city isn’t exactly going to go out of style anytime soon, and neither is the raw luminescence of Exile in Guyville


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