- by Mark Moody Rating:8 Release Date:2018-05-04 Label: Matador
There is certainly no disputing the brilliance of Liz Phair’s twenty-five year old master stroke, Exile in Guyville. Now a full lifetime away from her age when it was initially recorded it stands just as tall as her bragged about height in the lead off track ‘6’ 1”’. Phair was one of the brave young pioneering women to “go West” as she puts it on the same named track off of the three-and-a-half hour Matador box set, Girly-Sound to Guyville: The 25th Anniversary Box Set (“GtoG”). Consisting of the three legendary and remastered Girly-Sound tapes that preceded Exile, along with a newly remastered version of the ablum itself, the set aims to answer how an artist that noodled around with a tape machine in her bedroom comes to lay down one of the most epic and groundbreaking albums of the nineties, if not the century itself. In a sense GtoG succeeds in that, but one could also be forgiven for still being stunned by the lo-fi masterpiece of Exile that blasts harder than ever here vs. the no-fi Girly-Sound recordings. What Phair and long-time musical partner Brad Wood put together on Exile is made all the more amazing by what preceded it. Though Phair’s lyrical frankness was intact early on, even if she doesn’t always sound comfortable about it, going from Girly-Sound to Exile was the musical equivalent of alchemy - turning frayed straw into gold.
The Girly-Sound tapes consisted of three homemade cassette recordings: Yo Yo Buddy Yup Yup Word To Ya Mutha; Girls! Girls! Girls!; and Sooty. All were “released” in rapid succession in 1991 and prior to GtoG have never been officially released in their entirety. Snippets came out over various Phair recordings and reissues over the last several decades and many of the songs were recrafted and re-recorded for Exile and future albums.
Just to get this out on the table and going out of chronological order, the excitingly named Girls! Girls! Girls! is an absolute slog. (Note: In reviewing GtoG I wasn’t burdened with any of the essays included in the set, so whatever suppositions I make are just that). The middle of the three Girly-Sound tapes takes up a full hour of the box set and that’s excluding the six minute missing track of ‘Shatter’. I presume Matador couldn’t clear that song modeled on the Rolling Stones’ ‘Shattered’ or the Johnny Cash modeled ‘Fuck or Die’ off of Yo Yo. If Cash were still around I’m sure he would have had no problem with it or sought a pretty penny. With three successive tracks, ‘Ant in Alaska’, ‘GIRLSGIRLSGIRLS’, and ‘Polyester Bride’ averaging over seven minutes apiece and screaming for an editor they are tough to wade through. These extended guitar and voice only tracks end up being the opposite of sketches that later become art. They are more like lengthy diary entries that were ultimately edited down and probably best left for Phair’s personal use. It’s probably a bit of the benefit of hindsight that the highlights of Girls! Girls! Girls! come in the form of future Exile tracks, ‘Fuck and Run’ and ‘Clean’ (which became ‘Never Said’). Phair’s strained and varied vocals on ‘Clean’ show the beginnings of juxtaposing a “girly” vocal with the jaded voice of having seen it all at a young age. ‘Fuck and Run’ makes this all the more clear as one of Exile’s strengths is the contrast of innocence vs. experience - “letters and sodas” (read puppies and rainbows) up against virginity lost way too soon.
The earlier released Yo Yo and later Sooty fare much better. The songs on both are more concise and fully formed than those of Girls!. Though Yo Yo is decidedly more straightforward where Sooty brings in multi-tracked vocals and guitars that become a natural next step to Exile. Opening Yo Yo, ‘White Babies’ while certainly silly shows Phair very early on being willing to bust taboos and evidencing that nothing is off limits in trying to establish herself in an environment hostile to a solo woman performer. While ‘6 Dick Pimp’ and ‘Elvis Song’ may come off as merely prurient or immature, ‘Divorce Song’ packs an emotional punch showing how literate Phair has always been and that speaking truths is more important than being true. The best of the tracks that didn’t make Exile, ‘Go West’ and ‘Don’t Holdyrbreath’ show the maturity that lighting off on your own may innately be the only way forward.
Whether Sooty was actually recorded last or just released as such, it is the most “produced” and confident of the three Girly-Sound tapes. ‘Gigolo’ bursts forth from the speakers showing an artist getting comfortable in her own skin and with her own voice, not to mention it bristles with the energy that Exile would fully deliver on. ‘Slave’ shows Phair doing her best Kim Gordon impersonation sonically and lyrically, but the weaving in of the child’s nursery rhyme of “bubble gum, bubble gum” and multitracked vocals again show a smartly controlled contrast. The yin and yang is brought to full blossom on ‘Flower’, which is one track that probably shines brighter than the strangled electronics that threaten to choke it on Exile. Sung in rounds, the relative innocence of the sweeter melodic voice singing of “getting wet between the legs” meshes with the more vulgar and emotionally dead crush of the more experienced voice. She puts herself on parity with her male counterparts on ‘Suckerfish’ by brilliantly weaving in “you’re not the only one that used to watch Speed Racer” while also putting the cartoon’s theme song in the mix. ‘Whip-Smart’ and ‘Chopsticks’ again put kids' games into clearly adult topics cementing her approach. Finally, ‘Bomb’, which became ‘Stratford-On-Guy’ takes the atmospheric poetry that the latter title points to and takes it a step further that the Exile track wisely edited out.
I probably can’t add much to the canon that has been written and attached to Exile over the years. I have never really bought off much on the comparison to the similarly named Stones album putting aside the like number of tracks and its loose swagger. Of course Jagger already had the latter in spades, so Phair bringing it on her debut did more than just announce her arrival it planted a foothold for other solo women artists to move forward from. Without knowledge of the Girly-Sound tapes, Exile sits as if Phair skipped mountaineering school and ended up on the top of Everest without the aid of sherpas. It’s an hour long classic of lo-fi brilliance coupled with a feminist manifesto of equality and statement of “no, it’s not okay to have treated me this way and/or acted like an asshole” that was sorely needed then and still now. Pulling ten tracks reworked from the Girly-Sound releases, she and Wood (whose pop smarts certainly didn’t hurt - see Shrimp Boat’s excellent Duende for reference) delivered fully on her promise regardless of how little most of us may have known of the earlier tapes at the time. The album has been expertly remastered by Emily Lazar. Any fear of it losing its lo-fi feel is fully and quickly put to rest. The fresh mix only creates more dynamism in the instrumentation, the lower end in particular, which gives the album more pop. ‘Never Said’ and ‘6’ 1”’ rock harder than ever before and hearing the earlier incarnation of the former allows the listener to witness the transition from a lump of clay to a masterpiece. The edgy energy and guitar traces of ‘Soap Star Joe’ and ‘Johnny Sunshine’ appear more fully and the atmospheric end of the album, while maybe a bit more distinct, also loses none of its mystique. As mentioned, ‘Stratford-On-Guy’’s lyrical edit and renaming leaves it more a testament to Phair at her observational best and letting the tone provide any menace.
As an historical document and important track to how Exile came to be, GtoG is essential for completists and those who hold Exile dear. But if you are coming here to find any unmined nuggets let me put those claim jumping aspirations to rest. Phair extracted what is best here a long time ago, leaving only tailings and tracings pointing to the treasure trove of Exile that she presented as a perfect whole way back when. Even if it’s tough to recommend GtoG fully in its entirety, the remastered Exile is being released separately which is a must for anyone who has ever heard it and newcomers alike. While bits and pieces of the Girly-Sound tapes ended up on future Phair albums, GtoG’s focus on taking things no farther than Exile allows the listener to revel in her crowning glory.
While I tend to loath the whole re-release culture the record industry has fallen in love with in recent years, it's hard to argue with this one...Exlie was an instant-classic the day it was released. Great article!