Liz Phair “Juvenilia” EP (1995)

Depending on your reference point, Liz Phair is either a daring alternative artist from the ‘90’s, or a commercial-minded one-hit-wonder from the ‘00’s. Phair made a name for herself with her 1993 debut album Exile In Guyville, an amazingly confident set of 18 lo-fi songs (some of which had very explicit sexual lyrics) which opened the door for similar female alternative artists that followed. She continued to push the envelope with her next two albums: the polished Whip-Smart (1994) and the sophisticated whitechocolatespaceegg (1998). But Phair’s next course of action was unexpected: after a five-year hiatus, she returned in 2003 with the self-titled Liz Phair album, a slickly produced set that was evidently designed to appeal to the Avril Lavigne crowd. That album yielded a Top 40 single called “Why Can’t I?”, but it also prompted a backlash from her older fans who felt she had sold out. She tried even harder to sell out on her 2005 album Somebody’s Miracle, an unabashed collection of Sheryl Crow-like mainstream pop, but the album failed to deliver a commercial miracle. It was either irony or poetic justice that Somebody’s Miracle sold fewer units than any of Phair’s previous albums.

After another five-year hiatus, Phair returned with her 2010 album Funstyle, which was initially sold as a digital download on her official site. On this album, she bears more resemblance to the irreverent Liz Phair who made waves in the ‘90’s, and she often makes fun of music industry commercialism in the lyrics. It’s fun to hear Phair casually run carefree and wild in indieland for the first time in over a decade. However, her use of flimsy hip-hop stylings sounds utterly phony, as if she is trying too hard to regain her hip credibility.

But the physical Funstyle CD is worthwhile for Phair’s long-time fans because of its bonus disc, which contains ten tracks from her much-bootlegged “Girly Sound” recordings. The original “Girly Sound” tapes were recorded in 1991 (before Exile In Guyville) on a four-track tape recorder. These demo-like tapes were circulated among a small number of people before some of the tracks were submitted to Matador Records, leading to Phair’s recording deal with that indie label. This bonus disc actually does restore Phair’s hip credibility, even though these tracks were recorded 20 years ago. These ten songs, recorded by Phair alone with an electric guitar, are provocative lo-fi delights, loaded with irreverent and subversive lyrics.

Before Funstyle, there was only one official release of any of Phair’s “Girly Sound” tracks. Five of the songs were included on her 1995 EP titled Juvenilia, which is now out of print.

Tracks 4 through 8 on Juvenilia are tracks from the “Girly Sound” tapes. One of them is “California”, which is also included on the Funstyle bonus disc, but that is the only overlapping track. That song and “South Dakota” (which is sung to the tune of Iggy Pop’s “Funtime”) both make joking references to sex with cows. The other three “Girly Sound” tracks (“Batmobile”, “Dead Shark”, “Easy”) are better examples of the blunt effectiveness of Phair’s early recordings. Unless these three tracks are officially re-released in the future, they may make Juvenilia worth owning for Phair’s avid fans. Still, half an EP’s worth of “Girly Sound” tracks doesn’t make much of an impact on the listener. While the Funstyle bonus disc makes the “Girly Sound” recordings seem like unearthed indie-rock treasures, Juvenilia makes them sound like they’re no big deal.

The other three tracks on Juvenilia are negligible. “Jealousy” is from the Whip-Smart album; it lacks strength as an opening track for the EP. The piano ballad “Animal Girl”, recorded live for Dutch radio, is not well-served by Phair’s vocal limitations. And her inferior cover of the Vapors’ “Turning Japanese” is interesting only because Phair is backed by Material Issue and sings it as a duet with the late Jim Ellison.

Liz Phair “Juvenilia” EP (Matador ole 129-2) 1995

Track Listing:

1. Jealousy
2. Turning Japanese
3. Animal Girl
4. California
5. South Dakota
6. Batmobile
7. Dead Shark
8. Easy

Liz Phair - Juvenilia