The Girly-Sound Tapes are three demo tapes recorded by Liz Phair in 1991, two years before the release of her hit 1993 debut album Exile in Guyville. Like a collection of post-collegiate diaries, they’re a manifesto of a woman coming into her own, with a lot to say. The Girly-Sound Tapes were a near-mythological artifact of the ‘90s, impossible to come by in the time before Spotify and iTunes, hyped to exhaustion by those with access.
Now, after decades of an underground-style circulation, Matador has released all three albums together, as a glimpse into where Phair got her start.
Girly-Sound, a moniker that Phair began recording under, winks at expectations. The ultra-feminine implications of “girly” clashes against her dry cynicism and candor, redefining the word. Her music in “feminist” simply in the way it exists, unapologetically made by a woman. The demos are gritty, but not amateurish, and it’s easy to see why they were a sensation.
As the excitement that accompanied the demos built, Phair placed a call to Matador Records. Coincidentally, Gerard Cosloy, head of the recording label, had read a review of Girly-Sound the day before. With Cosloy’s curiosity piqued, thus began the Matador-Phair relationship. Next came Exile in Guyville and Phair quickly catapulted into rock fame.
Nine songs from the Girly-Sound Tapes found their way onto Exile in Guyville. “Johnny Sunshine” is consistently great. The Girly-Sound version is entirely grungy, less melodic than Guyville’s, but not missing the shiny production. It demonstrates the best versions of Phair, low-fi and clever. Other Guyville favorites like “Divorce Song,” “Soap Star Joe,” and “Fuck and Run” show up, satisfyingly under-produced (“Divorce Song” mercifully omits the shaker). It’s a fun “before and after,” a glimpse into early 90’s production trends.
There are some fantastic gems to unearth on the Girly-Sounds Tapes. “Dead Shark” is a fierce rock song with deadpan delivery. “White Babies” veers into joke-song territory, inching past irreverent. “Wild-Thing” and “Miss Mary Mack” are sly approximations of standard sing-alongs. The ambivalence in Phair’s style feels wry and wise beyond her years, yet instantly appealing and accessible.
“Open Season” is an examination of violence, and the hunt or be hunted mentality, through meticulous chords and droll affectation. Phair’s emotionless acceptance of her fate feels just as relevant today as it did in 1993: “Every night on TV / I see things that should make me blush / Looks like it’s going to be / Another open season on us.”
The Girly-Sound Tapes are now a prologue to a long musical biography. But they mark a special place in time, when excitement and exclusivity were mercurial, but attainable, for new artists. The dissemination of the Girly-Sound Tapes demonstrated a kind of promotion that can’t exist today, for good and bad. The aura of mystery around her early work created publicity, while also putting a target on her back for those who felt the attention was undeserved. But most importantly, these imaginative, attractive demos opened the door for one of the most prolific rock musicians of the ‘90s.
Notable Tracks: “Open Season” | “Soap Star Joe” | “Wild Thing”