- The Washington Times - Monday, October 3, 2005

Liz Phair

Somebody’s Miracle

Capitol Records

Sheryl Crow

Wildflower

A&M; Records

It’s been Liz Phair’s misfortune that, since her recent for-profit sonic makeover, she has been lumped in with the likes of Sheryl Crow.

Other than being female singer-songwriters who made their proper debuts in 1993, the two would seem to have little in common: Miss Phair the provocative feminist vulgarian who flipped the bird at classic rock’s male titans, Miss Crow the conciliatory flatterer to same.

However, after 2003’s “Liz Phair,” the gap between Miss Phair and Miss Crow tightened a tad. Suddenly, it wasn’t so hard to imagine the Top-40 Phair ditty “Why Can’t I?” on a Crow album such as “C’mon, C’mon.”

Miss Phair’s latest, “Somebody’s Miracle,” out today, won’t do much to disassociate her from Miss Crow (the raw indie-rocker of “Exile in Guyville” days is gone forever), but it still makes for a neat study in contrasts. Put simply, Miss Phair is a better songwriter than Miss Crow, who released “Wildflower,” her fifth LP, last week.

She has more to say — and says it more distinctively — than the increasingly uninspired Miss Crow.

With “Miracle,” Miss Phair consolidates her claim on the mainstream, churning out a smart-sounding set that offers showy ballads (“Everything to Me,” one of three tracks co-written by rainmaker John Shanks) to an adult-contemporary niche and shiny pop (“Count on My Love”) to the teen-pop masses. Yet her idiosyncrasies (the wavering melodies, the spiteful lyrics), manage, thankfully, to dirty the studio-enhanced luster that she seems to have embraced permanently.

The production (largely by John Alagia) is streamlined to perfection. Neither hairs nor notes are out of place — and if they were, you wouldn’t notice them through the glare of strings, keyboards and other adornments.

Still, it sounds graceful next to the futuristic flourishes that marred already-catchy “Phair” cuts such as “Extraordinary.” No matter how much you may miss the brassy chick who cursed like a sailor on “Exile,” you’ll ache right next to her as she yearns on “Miracle’s” title track for a “modern fairy tale” to come true in her own (famously volatile) love life.

Mr. Alagia dials down the sheen for the Stonesy romp “Why I Lie” and the sad and lovely “Table for One,” a Mexican-flavored tale of alcoholism. Miss Phair is in fine lyrical form as she warns the “wide-eyed ingenue” of “Stars and Planets” that her star will fall as quickly as it rises. (“We’ve seen 10 of you, just this morning,” Miss Phair sings.) Then on the shrugging “Why I Lie,” she chalks up her fibs to “a special combination of predatory instinct and simple ill will,” which is straight talk of a sort.

You’ll find no such edge on Miss Crow’s “Wildflower.”

The album was supposed to be the artsy companion to a pop album the singer was also slated to release this year. She nixed the idea (probably wisely) and came up with this mediocre compromise of a disc that drowns in lugubriousness. It’s basically a run of overwrought ballads with a few breaths of oxygen such as the midtempo “Lifetimes” and the silly philosophical pop-rocker “Live It Up.”

Geopolitical commentary lurks amid the mawkishness. The perplexed Miss Crow has here a mind to pen a “Letter to God” and, on the wannabe-George-Harrison-esque “Where Has All the Love Gone,” she sings, “Today I saw the flag roll by on a wooden box/And if it’s true we’ve lost our way/Then what have we got?”

I can’t speak for all of us, but I know what Sheryl Crow’s got: a lack of originality and a modest gift for mimicry that, 10 years on, has run its course.

Enough already.

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