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Liz Phair, ‘Somebody’s Miracle’ (Capitol)

Liz Phair may never make another smart-sexy classic like Exile in Guyville. But two years ago, when the former indie vixen took a shot at teen pop, lots of old-time devotees, especially those of the graying male variety, were apoplectic about her new direction. Feigning offense at her jag into radio cheesecake, they were mostly stung by the idea of her drooling over a young hottie with better Xbox skills. She still wanted to be somebody’s blowjob queen, but not theirs.

Phair has mostly dropped the cradle-robbing MILF shtick on her new record, but it’s no return to exile. This album is closer to 1998’s whitechocolatespaceegg: mature and complicated. Working with the producers behind John Mayer and Michelle Branch, she flirts with a sound that wouldn’t be out of place on CMT. The honky-tonkish “Got My Own Thing” even has a Shania-style breakdown rap. But, of course, it’ll never make the country airwaves. Phair’s quavering voice is way too tenuous for that. And if her melodic sense has become increasingly formalist, these songs still sound like undercooked demos from an off-Opry mill.

So, once again, she’s made a record that slips though the cracks. Last time her dirty-30s desire was too adult for the kiddies; this time, despite the jam band filigree she’s added for distraction, her lyrics are too self-involved for mainstream sing-along. One of the catchiest bits, the chorus of “Leap of Innocence,” is weighed down by its confusing multiple perspectives: “Anyone could tell you were my instrument / You said I understand you / You wanna play me.” And the record industry blast “Can’t Get Out of What I’m Into” groans with details like “It’s a steady job / And it’s the only thing that makes me money.” At least it packs some sassy sacrilege: “Oh, oh Lord / Why have you forsaken me?”

Or maybe it’s not meant as sacrilege at all. This record’s got a whiff of 12-step Christian spirituality about it. The title track, a candid party girl’s cosmic plea to settle down, ends with the line “You know I’m praying for it.” Unfortunately, no amount of praying is going to make this yuppie-folksy production quirky enough for fans who still adore her four-track mind. Jesus died for somebody’s miracle, but not this one.

SEE ALSO: Sheryl Crow, C’mon C’mon (Interscope, 2002)