I’m not sure of the exact timeline but I have a distinct memory of buying The Juliana Hatfield Three’s Become What You Are disc on the same day I bought Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville. Released in 1993, the debut album from Liz Phair, is an all-time classic indie rock record. 25 years later, Matador Records brought out an anniversary edition that added two extra discs that compromised much of the Girly Sound tapes.
All these years later, the power of the original album is still intact. “Fuck and Run” and “Divorce Song” still cut straight to the bone and are devastating in their emotional directness. While those tracks are wise beyond their years, “Help Me Mary” sees a mid-twenties Phair pleading for help with lousy roommates. “Flower” saw Phair talk about sex in a way that had many indie rock males aroused while they listened in their bedrooms with the lights off. “Stratford-On-Guy” still disorients and sounds like an updated version of Joni Mitchell’s “This Flight Tonight”.
Much was made at the time of Exile being Phair’s response to The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. Perhaps a bit of hyperbole but for the first minute on “Johnny Sunshine”, Phair’s crunching guitar drives straight through rock’s heart. In 1994 Phair performed “Never Said” on the old David Letterman show and it felt like a major win for indie rock fans everywhere, like one of our own was making it. There is no praise that is too high for Exile in Guyville, this is one of the best rock albums of the 1990s and of any decade. 10/10
The rest of this three disc collection is music from the Girly Sound era that appeared on three cassettes in 1991. Years later Phair told Rolling Stone magazine that these demos act like a library that she has gone back to throughout her career. Many of these songs appear not only on Exile but also on the next two albums – 1994’s Whip-smart and 1998’s Whitechocolatespaceegg.
With just an electric guitar as accompaniment, some of the tracks like the aforementioned “Divorce Song” and “Johnny Sunshine” lack the power of the versions that would later appear. The bizarre first track, “White Babies”, a song about black market babies is a highlight. “Dead Shark” and “One Less Thing” are also standouts. Where things pick-up is when the tracks move to the GirlsGirlsGirls tape. “Hello Sailor” and “Wild Thing” that incorporates part of the famous Turtles track is ultra lo-fi coolness. The version of “Fuck and Run” that appears here with “Ant in Alaska” sound more professional and serious, like Phair knew she was writing really great stuff. 9/10
The second disc offers up more of the same. These tracks would have been extraordinary to have heard in the early 90s as the tapes got passed around from music fan to fan. Third disc highlights include “Miss Mary Mack” and “Gigolo” which almost sounds like a lost melody from The Beach Boys. Later career single “Polyester Bride” appears in a slower seven-minute version whereas the original “Whipsmart” is a mature take on raising children. 9/10
Listening to it almost 30 years later, it’s interesting to hear the demo tracks with fresh ears having listened to the finished versions 1000s of times. What really comes through is the power in these tracks and the enthusiasm that music fans would have had in 1991 is spot on. It’s an extraordinary batch of songs recorded in a short amount of time and to have it all in one box set is priceless.
Girly Sound to Guyville – 10/10
While I was aware it was happening, I didn’t bother with any of the R.E.M. reissues that have been coming out over the last 10 years or so. I finally dipped in with a not yet reviewed Out of Time in 2016 and absolutely loved the sound so started collecting the other more readily available remasters. For it’s 25th Anniversary in 2017, the band issued deluxe versions of Automatic For The People. Originally released in 1992, this elegiac album went supernova amongst a sea of grunge, baggy Manchester beats and the golden age of rap.
First track and single, “Drive” recalls David Essex’s “Rock On”. While barely scraping into the top 30 in the US, the song made the top 10 in Canada. The band tip it’s hat to another classic, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” with the upbeat “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” which plays like this album’s “Shiny Happy People”. The Bill Berry written “Everybody Hurts” was everywhere in 1993 and its freeway traffic jam video images are one of the most memorable of the 90s.
The politically driven “Ignoreland” blasts out of the speakers as the hardest track here. Destined to be a concert classic, “Man On the Moon” was virtually a non-hit when released as the second single. Featuring just Michael Stipe and Mike Mills on piano, the penultimate track, “Nightswimming” is one of the most beautiful tracks the band ever released, one easily recalled at the lake when the sun starts to set. Hard to follow up one of the best tracks in the band’s long cannon, “Find The River” closes out the album on yet another high note with Stipe noting, “nothing is going my way”. While Out of Time is what pushed them into superstardom, Automatic For the People is R.E.M. at the peak of their powers.
Having waited nearly two years to see if the super deluxe version would drop it price, it has never fallen much below $90CAD. Finally losing hope on that set, instead we opted for the 2CD deluxe with the biggest loss being a disc of rarities not included here. What is included is a 1992 concert from the 40 Watt Club in Athens, Georgia. Famously the band did not tour for either Out of Time or Automatic so this is a rare live recording from that era.
The disc gets off to a bit of a shaky start with four tracks from Automatic that don’t really hit including the aforementioned “Man on the Moon” that a few years later on the Monster tour would turn into a massive singalong. Where the band really hit their stride is with tracks from Out of Time including a sparkling version of “Losing My Religion” that will now be my go-to version on playlists. This is followed up with a haunting “Country Feedback” and a bouncy version of “Me In Honey”. Berry’s thunder like drumming and Peter Buck’s swirling guitar power the band through 1986’s “Begin the Begin”. Two covers appear in the Mill’s sung, and The Turtles classic, “Love Is All around” before Stipe returns with The Stooges “Funtime”. To finish off the night, the band lift the roof off the club with rip roaring version of “Radio Free Europe” showing off the chops that made them one of the must-see bands through the 80s and 90s.
Automatic For The People – 10/10
Live At The 40 Watt Club – 8/10