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How Liz Phair's observant pop-rock got her out of Guyville

Liz Phair

Liz Phair Elizabeth Weinberg

Six months into 2018, and it's shaping up to be yet another Year of Liz Phair.

Matador Records released a deluxe, remastered reissue of Phair’s beloved 1993 debut, Exile in Guyville, last month. As a bonus, the collection featured the legendary Girly-Sound demo tapes, unsparing home recordings that can still pierce even the most remote corners of the heart a quarter-century later.

Phair's also wrapping up a new album, recorded with Ryan Adams, and has booked extensive tour dates, including a sold-out show at the Turf Club tonight. And this Friday, Capitol/UMe is reissuing 1994'sWhip-Smart, 1998’s whitechocolatespaceegg, and 2003's Liz Phair on 180-gram vinyl.

If these latter releases might not initially seem as exciting as the Guyville repress, that’s partly due to the way Phair's career is perceived. Her debut sucks up so much emotional oxygen, the rest of her catalog gets short shrift. That's not a knock on Guyville, but a function of its greatness. The album's sharp confessionals and unorthodox instrumentation were so original, and resonated in such direct and profound ways, anything Phair released after would be measured against them.

But Phair's music can’t really be demarcated into strict, pre- and post- Guyville eras. She mined Girly-Sound for her next two albums—among other songs, the tapes included primitive versions of "Go West," "Polyester Bride," "Whip-Smart" and "Shane"—and both Whip-Smart ("Chopsticks," "Alice Springs") and whitechocolatespaceegg ("Girls' Room," "Uncle Alvarez") offer austere songs with stylistic parallels to her pre-fame recordings. They deserve to be considered and assessed on their own merits—not as records that "aren't Guyville," but as separate legs of Phair's songwriting journey.

Whip-Smart is an extroverted record, as made by an introvert: dark-jeweled guitar tones, grainy vocals, whiffs of piano, and puttering-around-the-house beats. Call it lo-fi, sure—but its aim is brash. In a parallel universe, "Jealousy" would be one of those classic rock jams you have to crank up in the car every summer—a kindred spirit to "Supernova" and its gloriously sloppy slide guitar hook. Whip-Smart’s closer, the piano-underlined "May Queen," blooms with watercolor-jangle riffs and Phair's strident, speak-singing catharsis. It sounds like it could have been released in 2018.

whitechocolatespaceegg is more unabashedly pop, with brighter, late '90s production—the kind of approach that gives even guitar-driven rock songs a vaguely cyber-savvy vibe—and more sonic variety. The title track stalks forward with evil-genius grunge riffs and atmospheric keyboards, while shoulda-been-a-hit "Polyester Bride" presages Liz Phair's slicker pop. "Fantasize" even features Phair backed by R.E.M.'s instrumentalists, who contribute genial rock-folk textures. (No doubt the connection there was whitechocolatespaceegg's producer, Scott Litt, who worked with R.E.M. for years.)

While Guyville focuses on combating patriarchal bullshit, both Whip-Smart and whitechocolatespaceegg are manuals on how to navigate life's mundane dramas. The slightly facetious "Money," another Girly-Sound revamp, wrestles with the timeless conundrum of making a living versus keeping a moral compass: "It's nice to be liked, but it's better by far to get paid/I know that most of the friends that I have don't really see it that way." The hi-fi confessional "Perfect World" is about longing to belong ("Wanna be cool, tall, vulnerable, and luscious/I would have it all if I'd only had this much"), and "Johnny Feelgood" is a deceptively simple song about being addicted to someone who probably isn't good for you.

Then there's "What Makes You Happy," a cool rush of bubblegum power-pop sprinkled with digital noise. The protagonist is talking to her mother about a new love, likely the latest in a string of bad decisions: "He's got an ex-wife in Pasadena/And sometimes she's a mess to deal with/But mostly we've been living here uninjured." Mom, of course, is supportive in a passive-aggressive way ("But you leave this house knowing my opinion/Won't make you love me if you don't care") but the song illuminates how freeing it feels to become your own person, even if it disappoints your parents.

These albums are also about joy and lust: "Supernova" and its indelible lyric, "Your lips are sweet and slippery like a cherub's bare wet ass," or how the narrator of "Love Is Nothing" ponders lying about her personality because she's disappointing a crush.

Whip-Smart and whitechocolatespaceegg have their flaws. In some spots—the lo-fi take on AM Gold "Nashville" or the ponderous indie dirge "Only Son"—their arrangements sag like a deflated balloon. And, sure, listeners have to work harder to connect with the songs. But that's all part of Phair's musical maturation: Having had her fill of Guyville's bozos, she branched out into observing how relationships and power structures operate in the world around her.

In hindsight, Liz Phair feels like less of a jarring disruption than the next logical step after whitechocolatespaceegg—a clean break from the shadow of Girly-Sound and a chance for Phair to reinvent herself. A decade after Guyville, she was no longer the tentative accidental songwriter thrust into indie stardom, but a seasoned musician itching to try something new.

She said as much to me when I interviewed her back in 2003, and the conversation turned to her working with production team the Matrix, pop svengalis who were then sizzling thanks to Avril Lavigne. "I needed to be able to do things that were challenging to me," she said at the time. "We obviously sought out the Matrix so that we could try to get a song that could be played on the radio, but the process of working with them was just as rewarding as writing a song on my own. It allowed me to vocalize feelings in a grandiose formula that thrilled me. It's very exciting for me.

"And if you really knew me, other than what you guys have from the press or Guyville or whatever else, if you really knew me, it would make perfect sense. It's my choice to chart uncharted territory for myself. I don't want to be—and this is how I felt in the industry as it is right now, cause it's so hit-driven—I don't want to be sidelined into oblivion. I want to be an artist that's making a statement for womankind that matters, and gets heard."

Liz Phair certainly introduced her to entirely new audiences: "Why Can't I?" scraped the Top 40 and ended up a rom-com favorite, appearing in How to Deal, Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!, and 13 Going on 30, while "Extraordinary" became a decent adult-contemporary hit.

Even more than Whip-Smart and whitechocolatespaceegg, Liz Phair deserves to be revisited. On "It's Sweet," produced by Michael Penn, a droning psychedelic backdrop pushes against a gleeful hook extolling the shivers of new love; "Love/Hate" chugs like a hollering late-'70s Cheap Trick anthem; and "Rock Me" is a singing-in-your-bedroom-mirror barnburner, all cherry lipgloss glam and gigantic power chords.

Liz Phair 's guest musicians also add perfect finishing touches. "My Bionic Eyes" resembles Redd Kross—and features guitar from Buddy Judge, who was in '90s cult act the Grays and also served as Phair's musical director—while Wendy Melvoin adds bass to the torchy ballad "Friend of Mine" and guitar to the uber-'00s pop-rocker "Take a Look."

Lyrically, Liz Phair isn't necessarily as soul-baring as her previous albums, although her ruminations on love, loss, dating, and divorce aren't facile. On the wrenching "Little Digger," Phair wonders how her then-recent divorce is affecting her then-young son, while "Friend of Mine" is an agonized look at someone feeling guilty over a relationship ending: "And I wasted your time, didn't I, and/That's the reason we fight all the time/It's been so long since you've been a friend of mine."

On a less serious note, Phair chides the younger man she's romancing in "Rock Me" with the cheeky dis, "Your record collection don’t exist / You don’t even know who Liz Phair is"—a commentary both on pop culture's disposable nature and her own legacy.

As with Whip-Smart and whitechocolatespaceegg, Liz Phair is hit or miss—although when things are spotty here it's usually the lyrics that falter. The Matrix collaboration "Favorite" is a spectacular failure due to its extended metaphor, the libido-killing comparison that a man is "like my favorite underwear/It just feels right, you know it." Equally bad is "H.W.C.," whose tiny moments of brilliance (e.g., calling a man a "secret beauty routine") are subsumed by sub- 50 Shades of Grey pillow talk.

The album would likely have been much better received had it been released in the poptimism-friendly '10s. Instead, Liz Phair was polarizing, vilified with savage reviews—Pitchfork gave it a 0.0, the New York Times called it "an embarrassing form of career suicide"—and also heralded with gushing assessments.

"Guyville was my absolute best effort, no question," she told me in 2003. "I was trying really hard to be approved of by a certain snobby group of musicians. I was trying to sort of do them one better, so it really pushed me to a level that [let me] produce I think what is a really good piece of work.

"But my true self? Part of getting divorced and all this kind of stuff that I've been through, and my age, and having a son, is you have to kind of come to terms with you, your whole self. I had to kind of integrate everybody that I had been—the dumb, syrupy suburbanite, the tomboy athletic girl. I had to kind of bring everybody all up into who I am right now—it's obviously a work in progress."

Fifteen years later, Phair's insistence on seeing herself as a work in progress stands even more clearly as her major musical strength. Her catalog is an incisive chronicle of what everyone eventually realizes about adulthood: You never actually figure out your life or completely outgrow your insecure teenage years. For Phair, songwriting has always been a means to sort through her own personal conflicts, or to examine how she and other women fit into the world. She may have started out mired in Guyville, but she quickly peaced out of town and found a room of her own.

Liz Phair
With: Soccer Mommy
Where: Turf Club
When: 7 p.m. Monday, June 4
Tickets: Sold out; more info here