In 1993, Liz Phair would make a massive splash in the world of music with her official debut, Exile in Guyville. More on that later. For the moment, let me talk about what came before and led to Phair getting the shot at making Guyville. In 1991, Phair recorded three cassette tape demos, though she didn’t really consider them as such. The first, Yo Yo Buddy Yup Yup Word to Ya Muthuh, was originally given to just a single person, one of Phair’s close friends who had requested a tape of some of her songs that he liked. But he duplicated and started to pass the tape around and by the time the year was out, Phair had two more demos in circulation, GIRLSGIRLSGIRLS & Sooty. These demos achieved a kind of cult status, as these kinds of things sometimes do. In the era of the internet, they’ve been available, but they’ve never seen an official release until now.
In conjunction with the twenty-fifth anniversary (!!!) of Exile in Guyville’s original release comes this absolutely fabulous box set of three CDs. It includes a remaster of Guyville, of course, on CD one. On CDs two & three, are the three demos, cleaned up, but still with enough tape hiss and weird echoes that you won’t forget how roughly these were recorded. Despite the way the CDs in the set are sequenced, I recommend going chronologically and starting with CD two; listen through the demos first and then move on to Guyville. I think that’s the most interesting, enlightening way to approach this material.
Anyway, the shortest possible version of a review for these demos is that they remain fantastic. Taking all three of the demos together, it’s a sprawling set of nearly forty songs. A couple of the demos remain elusive. For instance, a raunchy track titled **** or Die isn’t here because it’s entirely structured around a filthy rewrite of Johnny Cash’s I Walk the Line and, unsurprisingly, they weren’t able to get the rights to release it officially. The missing tracks are available online if you’re a completist and want to know what exactly it is that Phair keeps a close watch on in her version of Cash’s iconic tune; it’s not her heart, I’ll just say that.
But the sheer sprawl of these recordings is breathtaking; both CDs are packed with close to eighty minutes of music and it’s kind of astounding to realize that Phair recorded all of these songs in less than a year. You can see some development over the demos, but they’re really sharp from the word go. The very first demo features Divorce Song & Johnny Sunshine, a couple of very sophisticated tunes that she would go on to re-record, as she did with quite a few of these songs, and put on her debut. But the raunchy, deadpan wit everyone fell for on Guyville is already in place on songs like Money or the closing song of the first demo, In Love W/Yself, a truly charming and funny exploration of a relationship on the rocks, as a lot of Phair’s songs are. The first demo is really the only one that has a couple of bad stretches. Elvis Song, Miss Lucy & Dead Shark add up to a three song dead patch right in the middle of the demo, but the bulk of it is still quite good.
It’s with the second demo, GIRLSGIRLSGIRLS, that we really see her become a true genius. On the first album, there were only three songs over four minutes long. GIRLSGIRLSGIRLS has five songs that are over SIX with one bumping right up against eight. What’s deepened here is Phair’s lyricism, which is sprawling and beautiful, Dylan-esque sometimes. The album opens with Hello Sailor, one of Phair’s bitterest songs and moves quickly into **** & Run, perhaps her most famous tune. GIRLSGIRLSGIRLS was re-recorded for Guyville and on that record it’s under two-and-a-half minutes; here it’s a rambling seven minutes, packed with dense verses that were cut from the album version. This goes to something I wanted very much to say which is that a lot of times releases like this claim that they’re going to be revelatory by revealing process and sometimes they are. But this one is much more than that. I don’t even want to say that you listen to these demos and think, “Wow, I would really love to hear this song done ‘right’ on a proper album.” These demos hold up. Many of these songs were re-recorded by Phair for her professional albums and, in many cases, the versions here are . . . well, better. They’re raw and in somewhat poor quality and mostly feature just Phair and her guitar, but if you stood up and said that GIRLSGIRLSGIRLS is actually just a better album on its face, just purely taken as it is, poor quality and all, than Guyville I wouldn’t call you an idiot. And if you it said about just about any Phair album other than Guyville, I’d probably agree. Even when the songs aren’t better in this form, they’re just as good and it’s a testament to Phair’s incredible talent as a performer than they don’t feel in the least incomplete. For instance, whereas every Phair fan, and a lot of people who aren’t fans, are familiar with Never Said, one of the more straight-ahead rock tunes from Guyville. It’s immaculately produced and one of the fullest sounding songs on the record. Here it’s present in a slightly longer version called Clean featuring just Phair and her guitar and some tape-hiss. This version isn’t better, but it’s just as valid as a piece of art.
Finally, on Sooty, Phair really starts to expand what I guess you’d call her production values. It still sounds on the cheap, obviously, but Phair’s using vocal looping here in a way that allows her to harmonize and seeing various lines. Her version of Flower here is structured exactly the same as the one on Guyville, building new lines on top of old lines in interesting ways. The version of Whip Smart here is phenomenal in its use of vocal tracking to create an unbeatable hook. Most astounding of all is Bomb; Phair used elements of this song for the track Stratford-on-Guy on Guyville, but this version is longer and features, not one, but two, incredibly catchy hooks that revolve around Phair laying down a vocal and then singing different lines over the top of it. This one is barely even recognizable as the same song for most of its running time and it’s kind of made it hard to even listen to Stratford-on-Guy because it feels incomplete and kind of dull after this wonderful version. Other highlights on this one include Slave, maybe the saddest song Phair’s ever written, a near apocalyptic descent into grief and loneliness. And then there’s the delightfully adorable album closer Chopsticks, which unfolds a story of a missed connection over a piano rendition of the classic Chopsticks piece.
Anyway, I’ve gone on at great length about these three albums, so I’m going to actually defer talking about Exile in Guyville for a separate review, which it totally deserves. But this box set is really worth it just for the demos. Some people have been griping about the poor presentation; it does just come in a double jewel-box with a rather small insert, but what do you buy these for anyway? I buy them for the music and it’s the cheaper presentation that probably allows this astoundingly great set of music to price at just a bit over thirty dollars, which is one of the most stupidly great bargains you’ll encounter this year in art. These demos are nothing short of breathtaking and not just because they show you Phair’s process or serve as interesting trivia. They’re brilliant on the level of purely great albums. These three demos aren’t just historical artifacts or collectors’ items for Phair completists. They’re legit some of the best stuff she’s ever done. Getting an official release of them, cleaned up to the degree they can be, is a gift from the universe, one you do not want to miss. This box set stands up. I don’t know that these albums can really count as 2018 records since they’ve been circulating illegally for almost thirty years, but this is the first official release, so maybe they do. And GIRLSGIRLSGIRLS & Sooty in particular are truly stunning. These lo-fi bedroom recordings from twenty-seven years ago . . . they may be the best “new” albums of 2018. 4 stars.
tl;dr – official release of legendary demos reveals Phair as an artist from the jump; they may be “only” demos, but they’re some of the best stuff she’s ever done. 4 stars.