Like many who went from indie to major before her, Liz Phair has suffered the slings and arrows of critics, fans (most of them now former), and pundits. Bursting onto the scene with the stunning and still considered classic indie grrrl version of the Rolling Stones’ blues classic, Exile on Main Street, otherwise known as Exile in Guyville, Phair quickly caught the attention of many. The slide to mainstream, though many might say was sudden, was gradual, with a more accessible album in Whip-Smart, covers of ’80s pop in Juvenalia, the hooky mainstream MOR sheen of whitechocolatespaceegg until finally, the jump to Capitol and the vapid teenage drollery of her self-titled major label debut. Those who have been both waiting for a repeat of Exile and / or were deceiving themselves into thinking that Phair’s desire was not to break into the mainstream have been disappointed for nigh on twelve years now. Somebody’s Miracle will not assuage those feelings either, but it is not altogether horrible.
For a long time, I was one of those people waiting for the sequel to Guyville. Phair’s straight-shooting, honest and sometimes shocking lyrics opened a window unto the feminine world I had theretofore never seen. There are several male equivalents, the most celebrated being Nick Hornby’s confessional novel High Fidelity. Since that time, Phair has had moments of a return to that glory, but those moments were fleeting. Somebody’s Miracle has its moments as well. Several songs are well made, sung deftly and overall pleasant to listen to. Others, such as the opener, “Leap of Innocence,” are downright embarrassing, with off-key caterwauling and lyrics with no hope of being either structured or poetry by any sense of the word. The lyrics throughout the album are at turns insipid and overly simplistic. Phair has found herself firmly in the camp of aging singer songwriters holding on tenuously to the safe harbors of radio friendly rock a la Sheryl Crow. In fact, I am hearing very little difference between the two artists’ albums. In other words, Somebody’s Miracle has about as much edge as a sack of marbles.
As long as one goes into the listening of Somebody’s Miracle knowing what to expect, or at least with the lowered expectations caused by the previous debacle that was Liz Phair, the experience can be made somewhat more enjoyable. Tracks like “Got My Own Thing” or “Count on My Love” are not without their merits as far as music ready for those stations that play the `best of the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and now.’ For the record, I actually enjoyed quite a few songs on the previous record. Throughout all of the comparisons to throwaway teen pop like Avril Lavigne and Hilary Duff, songs on Liz Phair were a guilty pleasure that at least stayed in the direct and honest spirit that her earlier work exhibited. Yes, it took on a `Mrs. Robinson’ kind of feel in the voice of the then 36-year-old Phair, but this was the same person who told us to “Fuck and Run.” The teen pop sheen is not altogether gone, but is mostly replaced by adult alternative blandness.
We’ll all just have to face it, the Liz Phair that most of us knew and loved is gone, replaced by a kinder, gentler version making more money and, apparently, the kind of music she wants to make. I’ll probably never understand the dynamics of major labels signing bands after their creative peaks, only to wring every last dollar out of the `product’ until it fades away, nor will I understand why we, as a whole, not only suffer but promote mediocrity in the music we listen to, the movies we see, and the television we watch. If you are about to argue with me I give you exhibits A, B, and C: A) at the time of this writing, Destiny’s Child, Nickelback, Martina McBride, Rod Stewart and the Black Eyed Peas hold the top five slots on Billboard’s albums charts, and three of those are either covers or greatest hits collections. B) Hitch, The Longest Yard, and Wedding Crashers are among the top ten grossing films of 2005. C) the unbridled success of reality shows and the fast food processing of CSI and Law & Order. Somebody’s Miracle seems to be merely toeing that line of mediocrity that this country so loves and it should sell moderately well. I, for one, could take it or leave it. There is not enough invested here for me to care.
Sheryl Crow- Wildflower
Alanis Morissette- Under Rug Swept
Michelle Branch- The Spirit Room