A quarter century ago, Liz Phair issued the groundbreaking Exile in Guyville, an album that predated the #MeToo/Time's up movement by more than two decades. Heralded at its time of release as a snapshot of life as a female musician in Chicago's hip Wicker Park neighborhood, the work ultimately offered a look at how masculinity and gender stereotypes can wreck emotional havoc on a woman's life. Now, the work is being reissued and remastered by Matador Records in multiple configurations – including the Girly-Sound To Guyville: The 25th Anniversary box set, which for the first time collects all of Phair's early acoustic Girly-Sound recordings and shows just how defined her vision was from the start. The album remains profoundly influential. Phair's imprint can be heard all over the work from a number of contemporary musicians. Here, we look at five younger artists carrying on Phair's legacy.
On a cursory listen, Australia's Courtney Barnett appears to chronicle Whip-Smart-era Phair given she favors a mix of roughly polished guitars and tell-it-like-it-is lyrics. But Phair, with the exception of her early Girly-Sound tapes, never was as wordy as Barnett. Almost every Barnett song requires careful listening since she remains prone to unleashing a torrent of phrases that can easily be overlooked. "City Looks Pretty," from her forthcoming Tell Me How You Really Feel, is no exception, a seemingly sunshine-like blast of guitar-pop perfection finding joy in walking around a city. Yet all sorts of emotional messes reside beneath the surface. Here, none of the urban denizens say what they mean and all seem to be creating a front. Barnett's observational skills alternate from the personal to the world at large. No Barnett composition illustrates such traits better than "Depreston," which nods at everything from the struggle to settle down to the housing market.
The debut album from Sophie Allison, the 20-year-old Nashville singer-songwriter who performs as Soccer Mommy, will make you think the mid-90s never left. But while her largely mid-tempo guitar-rock material on Clean feels raw and unkempt, Allison's songwriting transcends alt-rock era trappings. A tune such as "Your Dog" delivers its statement of independence with a side of rage as the narrator concludes that an emotionally abusive relationship is not the way things have to be. Allison sings with a plaintive lilt, yet her songs are all deceptively simple, with rhythmic ticks and atmospheric guitars offering a sense of the unexpected. But her greatest strength lies in her ability to articulate what so often many of us want to say but don't. "Last Girl," for instance, chronicles the inner turmoil that can occur when one learns of a significant other's prior flings. Allison digs deeper than mere jealousy, turning the song into an essay on wanting to be someone else.
Australian singer Stella Donnelly mixes the caustic and humorous, utilizing the emotions to deliver revealing and observational truths. Whether addressing a racist family member or incessant barflies, Donnelly is adept at being direct, perhaps best evidenced by her lead single "Boys Will Be Boys." The song unfolds as a sort of message to a rapist, but gradually expands to touch on rape culture at large and the tendency to victim blame. "Your father told you that you were innocent," Donnelly sings, contrasting the message with a lullaby-like acoustic melody. It all builds to a commanding finale in which Donnelly declares, "I will never let you rest." The overall vibe of her debut EP Thrush Metal feels similar to that of Phair's Girly-Sound tapes, and a Donnelly song such as "Talking" showcases a Phair-like ability to detail the everyday heartbreaks of modern relationships.
Another part of today's mid-90s revival, the Lindsey Jordan-led Snail Mail learned from one of the era's best. The 17-year-old has been taking guitar lessons with Mary Timony, who, with her band Helium, possessed an ability to shred while maintaining a knack for using the guitar as a reflective instrument to underscore the moods of her lyrics. Jordan taps into the latter skill for her debut, Lush, which layers her songs with extra meaning. The lead single, "Pristine," for instance, feels like a straightforward teen romance song, complete with some I'll-be-alone-forever exaggerations. Still, as the diary-like work unfolds, it starts to hint at questions of sexual identity. Jordan's ringing guitar doesn't overpower and feels more like a sympathetic listener. But deep-thinking can also present a burden. "I hope I never get a clue," she sings on the melancholic "Heat Wave," hinting ignorance can lead to a more blissful existence.
Signed to Matador, Lucy Dacus is beginning her career in much the same Phair did. Additionally, Dacus, like many artists on this list, appears to have a bit of mid-90s obsession. (If one were to look at Phair's more pop-focused work for Capitol Records later in her career, one could argue artists such as Carly Rae Jepson also owe a major debt to her). Dacus' terrific Historian, released earlier this year, emphasizes self-preservation. The songs primarily deal with gaining the confidence to exit a toxic relationship. Historian also plays with dynamics. A track such as "Night Shift," running for about minutes, teems with cringe-inducing moments and shifting tempos. The mix of loud/soft dynamics capture a range of emotions. Elsewhere, Dacus brings in classic, Roy Orbison-inspired harmonies, adds elegant string arrangements, and makes the argument that turmoil can still sound refined.
Photo credit: Evie Mackay