“I asked her for water, she brought me gasoline,” Howlin’ Wolf once complained — now along come Polly Jean Harvey and Liz Phair bearing matches. “Douse hair with gasoline/Set it light and set it free,” Harvey rhapsodizes on “Man-Size,” from her second album, Rid of Me. “I clean the house/I put all your books in an order/Send it up on fire/Death before dawn,” Phair sings on “Canary,” one of eighteen tracks on her double-album-length debut.
Both discs explore the toxic consequences of intimacy with a lacerating explicitness reminiscent of Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English. Harvey: “I’ll make you lick my injuries.” Phair: “I’m a real cunt in spring/You can rend me by the hour.” Relationships don’t just end, they splatter. Yet listen closely, and you’ll hear these women laughing under their breath. That’s Phair doing Ethel Merman in the background as she sings about getting away “with what the girls called murder” on “Girls! Girls! Girls!” And that’s Harvey auditioning for a soap opera on “Legs”: “You were going to be my life, dammit!” And telling off some big ape in “Me Jane”: “Damn your chest-beating.”
Singer-guitarist Harvey and her two-man rhythm section — the British trio is known collectively as PJ Harvey — have been captured with you-were-there immediacy by noise bombardier Steve Albini. Robert Ellis’s drums play call and response with Harvey’s churning guitar, and his falsetto background vocals add yet another genderbending twist to the atmosphere of sexual vertigo. The problem with Rid of Me is that its in-your-face dynamics don’t leave much room for Harvey to maneuver emotionally. Even the cello on the relatively subdued “Man-Size Sextet” sounds like something out of the shower scene in Psycho.
Despite its low-fi production, Exile in Guyville roams giddily all over the pop landscape. On “Fuck and Run,” Phair, who lives in Chicago, manages to sound both wistful and pissed off. On “6’1″” and “Mesmerizing” she’s banging out chords that Keith Richards might admire. Folkie mood pieces (“Dance of the Seven Veils”) and spooky piano nocturnes (“Canary”) rub up against Patti Smith-style dialogues (“Flower”) and psychedelic whiteouts (“Gunshy”).
Phair writes sturdy riffs that render her rudimentary guitar technique beside the point — her largely midtempo material cuts through the surf like a shark fin. Above all, it’s her singing — wispy one minute, feral the next — that makes Guyville sizzle.