Quintessential Albums :: Whip-Smart (1994) :: Liz Phair

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Quintessential Albums :: Whip-Smart (1994) :: Liz Phair

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A Little History:

Whip-Smart is the second released album by Liz Phair, released in 1994. It was the follow-up album to Phair’s well-received debut album, 1993’s Exile in Guyville. Despite not being as critically embraced as Exile, Whip-Smart debuted at #27 on the Billboard 200, and ultimately achieved “gold” status.

Although obscured by its famous predecessor, the album has gained more recognition with time and is largely considered a key record to Phair’s legacy as an artist, along with her other two Matador Records releases and the Girly Sound tapes. 

After the success of Exile in Guyville, expectations ran high for Phair’s sophomore release. Exile had sold over 200,000 units by the spring of 1994, and was Matador’s most successful release (so far). The success of Exile was part of the reason that many major labels were looking to for distribution deals with Matador, most prominently Atlantic Records, which would form Phair’s next album deal.

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Because of this, Whip-Smart was one of the most anticipated albums of 199. Danny Goldberg, then-president of Atlantic Records, stated that the record would “hit gold quickly”, and both Rolling Stone and Spin were interested in featuring Phair on their covers.

Phair stated that Whip-Smart was particularly difficult to make because, at the time, she didn’t have many songs that weren’t about the music industry, which displeased her manager. In fact, a substantial part of the final album was composed of songs already written in 1991, when Phair recorded under the Girly-Sound moniker, namely Chopsticks, Shane, Go West, Whip-Smart, and parts of Jealousy (previously known as Thrax).

In total, Whip-Smart took about one month to record. The album was recorded in two distinct sessions. The first one took place in August 1993 in Chicago, while the second one took place in February 1994 in the Bahamas.

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Guitarist Casey Rice stated that the initial sessions at Idful Studios in Chicago were not going well because of distractions, such as “the phone ringing, people dropping by the studio, and so on“. Because of this, Phair wanted to continue recording the album in New York. However, because of financial constraints, the band ended up deciding to contact the Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas.

The same team that worked on Guyville worked again on what would become Whip-Smart. The album was recorded and mixed by Brad Wood, with the assistance of Casey Rice.

Brad Wood stated that the recording process was very much spontaneous, saying that “[Liz would] bring in a song and we’d record the whole thing that day. I’d have to write a drum and bass part right on the spot.”

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There was, however, a pressure to improve on the sound of the previous record, to meet the expectations of Phair’s newly formed fanbase.

Liz Phair has stated that the songs on Whip-Smart chronicle the beginning, middle and end of a relationship: “a rock fairy tale, from meeting the guy, falling for him, getting him and not getting him, going through the disillusionment period, saying ‘Fuck it,’ and leaving, coming back to it.

Phair has also commented on the sound of the album saying that it sounds more confident and playful, and less frustrated, tense, and sexual than Exile in Guyville.

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Liz Phair was also responsible for a great part of the artwork design. The cover art of the album is taken from a Soviet poster. In the original poster, there is an elderly person (as shown in lyrics booklet) in the middle of the star, however the album cover shows a somewhat out-of-focus photo of Phair.

The booklet features a collage of several polaroid photos of the band members and words composing the children’s counting rhyme “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe“.

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What Makes This “Quintessential” to me?

I was working at Tower Records. I was living back home again, me and my young daughter. I was recovering from a failed relationship/marriage/attempt at a “family”. I was twenty-five and trying to figure out who I was (would that now be called a “quarter-life crisis”?). I was in that state where I was making mistakes and missteps, but also was being bold and brave and daring.

Music was everything…but when isn’t it?

Women in music were my go-to, my source of strength, my collaborators and muses and map to this so-called life of mine.

I’d fallen hard for Exile (who hadn’t?), but it was Whip-Smart came around and stole my heart just the same. The album was filled with songs that begged to be played loud, to be the musical accompaniment to road trips and trysts in backseats with pretty boys and girls. It was part of my undisputed, “quintessential” soundtrack of being twenty-five. I needed these songs so fucking much.

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My Top 5 Favorite Songs:

5. Jealousy

“I can’t believe you had a life before me.
I can’t believe they let you run around free.
Just putting your body wherever it seemed like a good idea –
What a good idea…”

4. Go West

“And I’m not looking forward to following through,
but it’s better than always running back into you.”

3. Dogs of L.A. 

“The sawed off tree-trunks stand among the living palms,
you were beaming as I focused in and I panned along.
And I raced you to the top,
kicking snakes up from dusty rocks –
Young Abe Vigoda plays Frankenstein.”

2. Whip-Smart

“And I’m gonna lock my son up in a tower,
’til I write my whole life story,
on the back of his big brown eyes.”

1. Supernova

“Your kisses are as wicked as an F-16,
and you fuck like a volcano,
and you’re everything to me…”

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