Liz Phair: Somebody's Miracle

David Bernard

Liz returns from her experiment in mainstream pop with another mainstream pop record. She's as catchy and as banal as ever.

Liz Phair

Somebody's Miracle

Label: Capitol
US Release Date: 2005-10-04
UK Release Date: 2005-10-17
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CD cover artwork rarely accurately recreates the music contained on the disc. Often the expressionist paintings and fuzzy photography are simply statements as artistic as the music itself. Every once in a while, a CD will (gasp!) feature a picture of the artist on the front. This introduces the artist to his/her audience and puts a face with a name. More established artists tend to shy away from this practice, as evidenced by Radiohead's complete lack of existence, at least art work wise, since The Bends. Thank God for Liz Phair. She bucks the trend by placing her face on the cover of Somebody's Miracle. In fact, each of her last two CDs has explained the music simply through its use of cover art.

Liz Phair was her attempt at mainstream success. After years without a record, Liz decided to show how youthful she remained and how pertinent she was to the current music scene. In order to show that, Liz spread her legs with only a guitar blocking the view of her crotch. It foreshadowed the whoring of her sound to commercial radio stations and weepy chick flick soundtracks, as well as her last ditch effort at shocking a stuffy nation (Exhibit A: "H.W.C.", which stands for hot white cum).

Somebody's Miracle finds Liz returning to form, or at least a diluted form of herself. Just look at the artwork. It features a close-up headshot, as if to indicate the rejection of the last album's studio sheen (sorry, Liz, I ain't buying it). More importantly it appears to by a photocopy of a photocopy. The black and white image is grainy and pixilated. Liz Phair's music on Somebody's Miracle reflects her current image: a bad copy of a bad copy. No longer is she trying to be shocking with "H.W.C." or spread legs. She's reserved and proper. And God dammit if that stance isn't the most boring fucking thing in the world.

I miss the Liz Phair of old, the one who seemed like she'd ask you over to meet her parents, then give you a blow job in the coat closet. And now that Liz is all grown up with a kid of her own, her life is one giant snooze fest. Unlike most people, Whitechocolatespaceegg was my introduction to Liz, and it's also a fine album. The studio polish that many critics attacked works well with the music because it's varied, and the songs are good. They're frequently inventive and witty. But when that studio polish has few good songs behind it, as on Somebody's Miracle, we're left with a void much deeper than is possible on lo-fi recordings.

The opener, "Leap of Innocence", has an awful verse melody. It's meandering and strained, and Liz weakly goes into her falsetto. But the chorus is a catchy pop statement, as catchy as anything she's ever written. This proves the overarching theme: frequent moments of crap followed by calculated/inspired pop bliss. "Wind and the Mountain" is repetitive but expertly crafted. That only pertains to the verse. The chorus is as bloody awful as the verse of "Leap of Innocence". "Stars and Planets" has its relative charm, but the word "shine" is repeated 54 times. Christ! The title track is pure schmaltz with a wah-wah guitar and undergraduate love poetry lyrics. The verse of "Lazy Dreamer" is as adventurous as Liz gets with rhythm (it's still 4/4 time, but the snare isn't always struck on two and four!). And, of course, the first single, "Everything to Me", is a terrible exercise is excess. That song could fit in with any adult contemporary genre, be it pop, rock, or country.

The CD is not all bad, and it's certainly not the complete disaster some critics want it to be. Sometimes Liz squeezes some life out of the muse, but those occasions are rare. Often the pop goodness overcomes common sense, the same way a song like "Toxic" can convert even the most grizzled pop music haters. The verse of "Count on My Love" is remarkably similar to The Postal Service's "Such Great Heights". The chorus is almost as killer, too. Then, the music drops out after the bridge (a listless bridge at that) to leave a beautiful vocal chrous. If you can remember to ignore the lyrics, "You can count on my love/ An umbrella when it's raining/ When you feel your hope is fading", you're in for glossy studio magic.

If you have few discriminating tastes and cannot read or speak English, this album might be your favorite pop record this fall. Liz could have even have turned the record into a keeper if she had limited the track list to ten songs and utilized a more discerning producer. As it stands, fans will have to wait a few more years before another possible Exile in Guyville Part Two. Guess what guys, it's never going to happen.


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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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