This week marks the 20th anniversary of Liz Phair’s landmark debut Exile in Guyville, a record that kicked ass, took names, and set the alternative rock scene ablaze. Critics unanimously adored it, sales (for an indie release in a YouTube-less age) were considerable, and legions of listeners (male and female alike), found themselves dumbfounded and touched at the blistering precision of Phair’s observations and insights into the peaks and valleys of sex, love, success (or lack thereof), and growing up. Like a clairvoyant’s crystal ball, Phair saw all, knew all, and was always transparent — sometimes painfully so.
Guyville also holds the distinction of being one of the most expertly subversive albums of all time, Phair cleverly skewering those emotionally fickle music men who would later join the chorus in singing her praises. On some of the LP’s more cherished tunes, she crassly lamented her desire to be some beautiful, longhaired hipster boy’s “blowjob queen” (“Flower”); masterfully captured the awkwardness of the one-night stand (“Fuck and Run”); and brilliantly revised old-hat domestic mundanity by dropping lines such as “It’s true that I stole your lighter / And it’s also true that I lost the map / But when you said that I wasn’t worth talking to / I had to take your word on that” (“Divorce Song”) or “Take out the garbage on Tuesday nights / Seems like the small things are the only things I’ll fight” (“Gunshy”).
To call Guyville experimental is not a misnomer: Phair, more performance artist than natural-born musician, sat in her bedroom and covertly — the vocals even sound like they are being whispered to avoid getting caught — recorded dozens of original songs on a 4-track, and she did so mostly as a lark at the urging of some friends. What she spun in those sessions was nothing short of pure gold, moments of artistic expression at their most raw, a young woman fiddling around with a guitar and sketching accidentally brilliant portraits with an appropriately untrained voice. It was the circulation of those cassettes — under the moniker Girly Sound — that garnered unprecedented attention and lay the foundation for what would become Exile in Guyville. In fact, a large portion of Guyville came from the Girly Sound tapes, as did several tracks on successive albums Whip Smart, whitechocolatespaceegg, and even “latter day” Phair fare Somebody’s Miracle. But even more exciting than accessing those songs’ demos was the fact that there existed a deluge of other, unreleased Girly Sounds and those tapes went on to become widely sought after and shared among fans.
In anticipation and celebration of Guyville‘s platinum milestone, Sound Affects’ Between the Grooves series has been examining the record track by track week by week, and so for this very special edition of List This, we share our picks for the top five Girly Sounds. Why? Well, that’s easy. It’s often been said that if Phair, who has somewhat fallen out of favor since her unapologetic and unmemorable bubblegum-pop-rock detour in the early oughts, wanted to make another truly great album, perhaps even one that bests Guyville she need only rerecord the Girly Sound sessions. A bit hyperbolic, sure, but not in reference to the quality of the songs. Phair likely plucked the tracks she reworked for Guyville because of their cohesiveness and how they built onto the new material she was writing at the time. But many of those songs that never made it to official release, the ones that helped prepare Phair for the composition of Guyville as a whole, are so beloved because they are everything Guyville is but even more so: more gritty, more perverse, more comical, more emotional. Yes, we know some of these have already been released (some on the Juvenilia EP, some on the reissue of Guyville, some as a bonus disc included with her 2010 LP Funstyle) and of course we know that only choosing five is an impossible and ultimately divisive task, but nevertheless we believe it best to honor the glory of Guyville by paying homage to the immaculate conceptions that occurred when Phair was alone in her bedroom with her guitar, her notepad, and her four-track, playing her one-woman game of Truth or Dare.
5. “Black Market White Baby Dealer”
Thematically it wouldn’t quite sit on Guyville so it makes sense that it didn’t make the cut, but “Baby Dealer” still earns its fifth place spot because it’s a spectacular example of Phair’s ability to sell what’s essentially one long yellow joke by prescribing it a light, catchy melody that would sound at home as a TV jingle for cat food. Fitting, considering she’s singing about someone who “goes hunting around overseas” so he can “kidnap clean fresh white babies” and hock them to rich white consumers. The song is silly in its way, but it also foreshadows Phair’s preoccupation with the dehumanizing effects of elitism and materialism that are peppered about Guyville. Phair’s vocal is also airy and cutesy, a prepubescent affect that stirs the listener at once to laughter and to shift uneasily in his seat. Imagine that: a Liz Phair song that discomfits without a single sexual reference — though no babies were actually harmed during the making of this song, we’re reminded that none were even made (wink, wink).
4. “Fuck or Die”
Does “Flower” make you blush? “Dance of the Seven Veils” send you into a fit of nervous laughter when you hear the word “cunt” sung like a hymn? Consider “Fuck and Run” your personal anthem? Then you may not survive the psycho-sexual-twister that is “Fuck or Die”. Somewhere you can envision even Phair popping it in for a listen and shaking her head in amazement and reflective shame for being such a dirty, dirty girl. Okay, probably not. But “Fuck or Die” is an awesome song because it’s terrifying and hilarious, Phair threatening that she’s going to “give you head even if it kills you” and instructing you to “do it do it do it til you’re bone dry”. The song’s opening verse rhythmically mimics Johnny Cash’s “Walk the Line”, replacing the classic chorus with “I keep a close watch on this twat of mine / The condom on your dick is the tie that binds”, and then abruptly ends with the original Cash lyric intact. Other Girly Sound tracks include takes on “Miss Mary Mack” and “Wild Thing”; coupled with “Fuck or Die” they serve as a reminder that Phair was constantly spinning the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street when she was penning the final version of Guyville and figuring out how to more subtly use existing songs as a template for her own musical musings.
3. “In Love With Yourself”
In 2010, singer Chris Brokaw opened for Liz Phair at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City. During his set, he revealed that he was an old friend of Liz’s (and during her encore that night, before asking him to join her in singing “Don’t Hold Your Breath”, number two on our list, Phair credited Brokaw with helping make the Girly Sound demos happen) and then performed a brooding cover of “In Love With Yourself”. This performance enhanced and captured the brilliance of the song, which spans the toxic on-again/off again relationship between a man and woman, each of whom reminds the other upon leaving and returning not to “be so in love with yourself / Because I’m not / Don’t you know I’m not?” The song is painful in its examination of co-dependence and disintegration, but also lovely in its construction, even with each accusing the other of trying to sell the other “a lot of bullshit”. When the couple, long separated, reunite at the song’s closing for a fight and a fuck, the female character dishes out their signature, titular warning, to which the male character somberly, tragically replies “I know / Don’t you think I know?”
2. “Don’t Hold Your Breath”
“I don’t have what it takes to stay with you”, Phair begins on this at once spare and sweeping fan favorite that reads like a goodbye letter from a lover bailing out of the relationship even though she can’t quite say why. “Anywhere I go”, she admits, “I won’t find anyone who loves me enough / To make you look bad.” And yet she feels compelled to move out and on, evoking the intangible-but-unmistakable spiritual road trip vibe that inhabits much of Guyville (“Divorce Song”, “Shatter”, “Strange Loop”). “If I ever pay you back”, Phair promises, monetizing the hurt she’s potentially causing and mixing her metaphors as only Liz can, “I will probably be in a box lying down / Loosely suited in black”. Whether she suspects she’ll die before she can be forgiven or she’s slyly suggesting she’ll never actually be remorseful enough in this lifetime to offer any realistic emotional compensation, the only certainty here is that Phair is taking claim for her actions, and accountability is something she preaches and practices widely on Guyville. Also of note: “Don’t Hold Your Breath” bears a Liz Phair trademark of occasionally titling songs with phrases that don’t appear in the lyrics, a kind of punctuation and punch-line that manages to both complicate and clarify.
Getting through the entirety of “Love Song” without choking up is no small feat, and chances are you’ll fail miserably. In typical Phair fashion, she calls herself out on employing the cliché at every turn, offering the disclaimer “this is another story about love” and quickly eye-rolls herself: “What a surprise”. But Phair “[doesn’t] care if you don’t wanna hear it” and her pushiness is well worth it. “Love Song”, which Phair sings in the same gruff, low register she employs on Guyville when she’s toughing it out and locking her knees from collapsing (“Mesmerizing”, “Shatter”), takes us through the familiar trajectory of heartache and swearing off love for good (“You can write a hundred love songs / and you can play them every night / And you can make yourself ready / But you might waiting your whole life”) and the cycle of scolding yourself for succumbing to the butterflies and hypocrisy of feeling that wonderful ache all over again (“I started feeling sick yesterday / And it’s only gotten worse / They used to tell me love’s a blessing / But now I know that it’s a curse”). That the song remains in its melancholic plateau for its entire six minute run, even as Phair confesses that “all [her] resolutions are shot to hell”, reminds us that love and heartache, for Phair, for us, are one and the same, and should be treated with equal parts reverence and caution—perhaps the most significant conceptual lesson Exile in Guyville would eventually present us with.