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PS Picks: Liz Phair's Girly Sound Mixtapes

PS Picks is a selection of the best things that the magazine's staff and contributors are reading, watching, or otherwise paying attention to in the worlds of art, politics, and culture.
Musician Liz Phair performs at The Theatre at Ace Hotel on March 26th, 2016, in Los Angeles, California.

Musician Liz Phair performs at The Theatre at Ace Hotel on March 26th, 2016, in Los Angeles, California.

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Liz Phair's Girly Sound Mixtapes: In 1991, Liz Phair was fresh out of Oberlin College and living with her parents in suburban Chicago when she recorded three cassettes of bedroom four-track tapes under the tongue-in-cheek moniker Girly Sound. Over 40-something songs, Phair spun candid tales of desire and wry send-ups of masculinity alongside strummy acoustic guitar and self harmonizations. The tapes got her signed to the now-legendary indie label Matador, where she released Exile in Guyville, her far more polished debut album. Though incomplete, degraded bootlegs floated around for decades, but they were difficult to access until this month, when Matador released The Girly-Sound Tapes as a three disc album to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Exile's release.

Exile rocketed Phair to Gen-X indie rock stardom, a critical and commercial success she was never able to replicate. Though its improved production values and increased instrumentation are essential to its lasting appeal, the album's brilliance comes from Phair's songwriting—her wit, frankness, and melodic flair. Much of that songwriting was pilfered from her Girly Sound material: More than half of the songs on Exile are adapted from those bedroom demos. Phair continued to raid these demo cassettes for songs on her next two albums, before sexist major label marketing, the unrealistic expectations of fame, and questionable artistic decisions dried up her output. "I go in there and rip stuff off—it's like a library," she told Rolling Stone in the 1990s. Since Phair's most beloved albums are something of a palimpsest of those bedroom demos, the tapes became an essential part of her origin myth among fans. And, while sprawling, they are a joy to sift through, repeatedly yielding melted down, all-too-human versions of the songs that earned Phair her fans.

Part of the appeal of The Girly-Sound Tapes is the thrill of the uncanny, of encountering a refracted version of the familiar—the Ur-forms of the shadows on Exile in Guyville's cave walls. But it's also hard not to cherish them as a prelapsarian window into the mind and maw of a brilliant 23-year-old, still untainted by the starmaker machine, by the press, and by us. The tapes perfectly present the dramatic irony of that tragedy. And for a loving listener: starting is such sweet sorrow.