Lost in the ’90s: Sam Phillips

lit90s

In 1988, Leslie Phillips turned her back on a successful career as a Christian Contemporary artist, changed her performing moniker to “Sam,” and recorded her first mainstream pop album, The Indescribable Wow, with producer and soon-to-be husband T Bone Burnett.  It was a bold move that paid off critically, if not commercially.  The album sold a fraction of Phillips’ Christian work, but her inventive songwriting and unique voice won her a new cult of fans.

But it was her third secular album that saw Phillips come closest to breaking through to the pop charts.  1994’s Martinis & Bikinis was packed with Beatles-esque hooks, clever wordplay, and sterling production by Burnett and XTC’s Colin Moulding on key tracks.  Lead single “I Need Love” got some Modern Rock radio love, but it was the second single, “Baby I Can’t Please You” (download) (one of the Moulding tracks, a fact that becomes quite obvious upon listening), that got the most attention.  Besides a video that made regular rotation on MTV’s 120 Minutes and Alternative Nation, it was also featured on the Melrose Place soundtrack compilation that sold quite a few copies.

If I recall correctly, it was actually used in the show in the scene where Sydney was almost raped at Shooters by Jane’s evil boyfriend.  Poor Syd.  But hey, at least she’s come back to life for the revival of the show this fall (Yes, I know the big spoiler in the premiere, but don’t ruin it for everyone if you do, too)!

But back to Sam – Martinis is a fantastic album, truly stellar from front to back.  One of my favorite tracks is the understated “Fighting With Fire,” (download) with its chugging, synthesized percussion and hyperactive bass line.  And those harmonies when Sam’s voice is double-tracked – le swoon.

Loving that album like I did, I was incredibly excited two long years later when the follow-up, Ominpop (It’s Only A Flesh Wound Lambchop was released, and as equally disappointed after hearing it.  If the title wasn’t warning enough, Omnipop was a huge step away from the accessible pop of its predecessors,  as Phillips went a little crazy on us, experimenting with  lounge-y numbers, dark, synth-driven meditations with few hooks, and downright bizarre tracks like “Zero Zero Zero” (download) which barely featured her voice, the primary product a Sam Phillips fan is plunking down their money to hear.

Omnipop was all the more frustrating since it featured one truly blazing pop moment, “Power World,” (download) a classic Phillips song in true Martinis fashion.  It was a cruel tease of what could have been, but one more great Sam Phillips song was worth the price of admission.

Phillips recovered from Omnipop‘s commercial failure to return to a more acoustic, folk-driven sound that has served her well for the three albums since.  She also spent a good portion of the ’00s providing the strummy, acoustic “la la” bridging music for the Gilmore Girls TV show – she probably made more coin writing those 15-second numbers than she did off of her entire music catalog.  Such is the biz.

“Baby I Can’t Please You” did not chart.

Get Sam Phillips music at Amazon or on Sam Phillips