[Jefito’s Note: She’s been a critic’s darling for most of her career, but the public at large has always been mostly unaware of Sam Phillips’ music, which is why I leapt at the chance to feature this Idiot’s Guide to her work, thoughtfully written by our pal Jon Cummings. If you’re anything like me, you relish the opportunity to take a guided tour through a catalog you know almost nothing about. Thanks for all your hard work, Jon! â€”J]
Since emerging from the haloed ghetto known as Contemporary Christian Music in the late 1980s, Sam Phillips has recorded six albums of consistently sharp-edged music while navigating the boundaries of numerous radio genres â€” without ever managing to find her way across those boundaries into real mainstream success. Encouraged to expand her sights beyond CCM by future producer, songwriting partner and husband T Bone Burnett, Phillips launched her secular career with albums that dabbled in the thematic as well as the musical obsessions the two of them shared, from roots rock to psychedelic pop. More recently, after a less-than-successful flirtation with electronica and dissonance, Phillips has stripped down her sound and released two acclaimed albums of acoustic cabaret-pop.
Full disclosure: I’ve been in the tank for Phillips since the first night of her first tour as a secular artist, an opening slot at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., in December 1988. My wife and I got to the club a little early, just as Phillips and the evening’s headliner, Luka Bloom, were heading out to dinner. Soon Sam had invited us to join them, and we were off to RT’s restaurant down the street to introduce Sam to the wonders of turtle soup. (She liked it; my wife, not so much.)
Later, back at the gig, Sam had what could have become a very rough night, breaking two strings on the only guitar she had brought onstage. By the time Bloom brought out one of his own, Sam had valiantly and good-humoredly picked her way through the tricky (and bass-note-heavy) instrumentation of her early semi-hit “Flame” (download) on the four remaining strings. It was one of those moments that earn an artist the undying loyalty of everyone present, and I can’t help thinking of that night every time I hear her sing. Heck, I thought of it even while watching her vamp her way through the sultry silence of her Big Hollywood Moment a decade ago, playing villainous Jeremy Irons’ mute girlfriend in Die Hard With A Vengeance. Fortunately, she’s never quit her day job.
Phillips’ secular music reflects a perpetual, largely fruitless yearning for truth and bliss, be it spiritual or romantic. Though she has ventured far from the unquestioning confines of the Christian market, her fan base continues to include some holdovers from her CCM days; Seattle resident Jeffrey Overstreet has much to say about her from a Christian perspective on his website, lookingcloser.org. However, judging from postings in various locations on the Internet, many fans of Leslie Phillips’ strident ’80s pop-gospel still have no idea that she has evolved into a relentlessly inquisitive singer-songwriter whose secular work is practically a guidebook to contemporary agnosticism.
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Anthologizing the four Christian-music albums she recorded under her given name, Leslie Phillips, for the Word/Myrrh labels during the ’80s, Recollection offers a glimpse into the creeping alienation of an artist from her God â€” or at least from an industry built upon celebrating that God. Her first three albums â€” Beyond Saturday Night (1983), Dancing With Danger (1984), and Black and White In A Grey World (1985) â€” were successful within the confines of CCM music, where she was considered the edgier alternative to Amy Grant. At that time CCM recordings were sold mostly in Christian bookstores and, for the most part, had nowhere near the sales impact that Christian artists enjoy today. Typically, Phillips’ early albums never appeared on CD, though they’re all now available on iTunes and presumably elsewhere online.
To the ears of a listener not predisposed to get much out of Christian pop, those first three albums were largely nondescript, sub-Grant treacle. Occasionally peeking out through the layers of keyboards and trebly vocals were some decent melodies, particularly “No One But You” (download) and “When The World Is New” (download). But only on Black and White did Phillips even hint at expressing the shift toward spiritual ambiguity that would make her last Christian album, The Turning, a classic in any genre.
It is no coincidence that the only truly engaging music on this “hits” disc comes from The Turning. Earlier this year Word Records released a second compilation of Leslie Phillips’ music, titled (as more and more of these things tend to be lately) The Definitive Collection. However, the new disc contains only one song from The Turning, compared to three on Recollection; so if you must expose yourself to music from her first three albums, Recollection is the way to go.
The Turning (1987)
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Better yet, forget the early stuff and head straight for this album, which remains to this day the best one Leslie (or Sam, for that matter) ever recorded. (In fact, if you can find a copy of The Turning on CD these days, you’ll find it attributed to Sam and not Leslie; the Word label had the good sense to re-release it in 1997 under a name that would sell more copies in the mainstream market.) Moody and sensual, offering up equal measures of glory and doubt, Phillips on The Turning has her heart in the heavens but her feet planted firmly on the ground. It is the sound of a Christian rethinking her relationship with her faith, and it is, in a word, revelatory.
No doubt the ambivalence on display here, not to mention the new edge in both her lyrics and instrumentation, was rooted in her evolving relationship with Burnett. By then Burnett had achieved cult status for his own spiritually tinged roots-rock albums such as Truth Decay (1980) and a self-titled effort released a year before The Turning. (He also had produced Los Lobos’ brilliant How Will The Wolf Survive, as well as the BoDeans’ debut Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams.) The Turning and T-Bone Burnett share a track, “River Of Love,” that is only obliquely religious yet neatly sums up the couple’s stance with lines like “There’s a river of grief that floods through our lives/It starts when a heart is broken in two/By the thief of belief in anything that’s true.”
Opening Phillips’ album, “River Of Love” sets the tone for a set of songs that explore the joys and tensions found in religious faith and metaphysical doubt. Uncertainty runs rampant through these 10 songs, from the hopeful plea of “Libera Me” (download) â€” an upbeat, almost giddy track that boasts a bassline so melodic it could send Paul McCartney running back to Lady Madonna â€” to the transcendent “Answers Don’t Come Easy” (download), which signals the onset of Phillips’ agnosticism in exquisite fashion. As Phillips vacillates between following her heart and her head, she’s also toeing the line that separates Christian music from secular pop. Merely approaching that line likely sealed her fate as a Christian artist, as that market never has been a bastion of tolerance for ambiguity. In fact, Phillips’ Turning tour of churches was an utter disaster, and it’s likely that Christian bookstores subsequently would have shown her the door had she not already pulled it shut herself.
The Indescribable Wow (1988)
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In short order, Leslie Phillips signed with the nascent Virgin label and changed her stage name to Sam (a childhood nickname, its link to the Sun Studios godhead apparently remained unknown to Phillips until well into her career). She and Burnett then set about writing and recording The Indescribable Wow, an album whose songs (despite the metaphysical implications of its title) bore few traces of overt religiosity. That’s not to say her concerns no longer venture into the spiritual, or that her attitude betrays any more certainty. On the album’s best-remembered track, “Holding On To The Earth,” she catalogs her earthly rewards with a familiar ambivalence: “I got a long black Cadillac/Marble hot tub in the back/Champagne waterfall/Solid gold question mark twenty feet tall.”
That song, featuring sitar-like licks from Burnett’s guitar and other psychedelic touches, gave Phillips her first whiff of mainstream attention. Its lyrical mood was matched by a triumvirate of songs whose titles trumpeted problems without solutions: “I Don’t Know How To Say Goodbye,” “I Don’t Wanna Fall In Love,” and “I Can’t Stop Crying” (download). The latter’s bridge lyric is a brilliant, altogether secular reckoning of one’s place in the world: “I know that this heartache is a speck in the sky of love/But it’s all I feel around me.”
Phillips turns her focus away from herself (or does she merely change pronouns?) on “She Can’t Tell Time” (download), a song that could be read as a metaphor for her break from the Christian market: “She can’t tell time/Deaf ears won’t listen to her/When faith went blind/I could see light through her:Her vigils in the street/Left my youth incomplete/Left meaning obsolete.” A couple of tracks were overproduced by Burnett, and Phillips remained unable to control her higher vocal register (a problem she solved by sticking to lower octaves on subsequent albums). Still, The Indescribable Wow marked Phillips as an artist to watch in 1988 â€” a year so resplendent with fresh-sounding debuts by female singer-songwriters that Musician magazine famously dubbed it the “Year of the Woman,” and featured Phillips prominently in its cover story.
Cruel Inventions (1991)
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While some of those women went on to long-term success (Melissa Etheridge, Sinead O’Connor, Tracy Chapman, Mary Chapin Carpenter), others proved to be flashes in the pan (Toni Childs, Tanita Tikaram). Phillips took her time responding to her seismic career shift and the notoriety occasioned by The Indescribable Wow. Indeed, she waited nearly three years to release a second album; for all that, Cruel Inventions sounds like a natural progression from The Indescribable Wow. It explores similar musical terrain, returning to Beatlesque psychedelia on “Where The Colors Don’t Go,” while darkening the mood on songs reminiscent of The Turning‘s more brooding numbers.
Phillips broadens her lyrical concerns with tracks such as “Raised On Promises” (download), taking on politics both electoral and sexual in thickly veiled language while touching on familiar spiritual issues. The illogic of consumer culture gets skewered in the sharp-witted “Standing Still,” while “Tripping Over Gravity” (download) seems to abandon logic altogether. Burnett takes the ’80s edges off the production, focusing instead on mood-enhancing guitar effects and propulsive drumming (two strong points throughout his producing career).
A stronger, if less accessible album than The Indescribable Wow, Cruel Inventions upped the ante on Phillips’ songwriting even as it made a mainstream pop career less likely. Phillips and Burnett would pursue their joint obsessions with even more exciting results on her next album.
Martinis And Bikinis (1994)
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Another long period of silence followed Cruel Inventions, broken only by the prominent use of two Phillips songs, “Raised On Promises” and “Holding On To The Earth,” in Ashley Judd’s 1993 film debut Ruby In Paradise. But when Martinis And Bikinis arrived it made the biggest splash of Phillips’ career, earning unanimous critical raves as well as a Grammy nomination, and even poking its way onto the Billboard 200 album chart (the only time she has managed that feat). More important, the album consolidated all the themes she had pursued since The Turning, in particular her relentless search for “truth” in a life that, particularly through her conservative-Christian upbringing and her journey through the CCM circuit, had surrounded her with “meaning.”
To drive the point home, she closes the album with a cover of John Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth” that trades Lennon’s vocal snarl for an weary tone of resignation; to borrow from another rock god, she clearly still hasn’t found what she’s looking for. The Lennon tune fits here not just because of its themes, but because, generally speaking, Martinis And Bikinis takes Phillips and Burnett’s mutual Beatlemania to new heights. “When I Fall” and “Same Rain,” the latter co-written by the two, are veritable primers on Revolver-era guitar licks and harmonies, and the Pepper-y imagery that permeated earlier albums reaches full flower power here on tracks like “Strawberry Road” and “Same Changes.” You’d swear it was Ringo on drums all the way through.
“Baby I Can’t Please You” (download) serves as a neat bookend for “Gimme Some Truth,” and features a neat lyrical trick: Even as Phillips skewers an unnamed politician through the verses (“You try to tell the world how it should spin, but you live in terror with the hollow man”), in the chorus she turns on herself with a mixture of self-loathing and pride familiar to persecuted peoples who’ve been forced to hear themselves derided by their oppressors. Finally, in the glorious “I Need Love” (download) she presents a manifesto that sums up everything she’s done since she turned away from the Christian market: “I need love/Not some sentimental prison/I need God/Not the political church/I need fire/To melt the frozen sea inside me.” And from wherever he is now, Lennon smiles.
Hidden within the triumph that was Martinis And Bikinis lay a solitary stinker, a track called “Black Sky” that jacked up the electronic effects and “Tomorrow Never Knows”-style drumming to conceal a clichÃ©d lyric and weak melody. Sadly, when it came time to follow up Martinis, Phillips chose not to capitalize on its strengths but instead to record an album full of tracks like “Black Sky.” Omnipop has its fans, but not too many of them. Phillips should be given credit for experimenting with electronica when electronica wasn’t (yet) too cool; still, most listeners found the album comparable to a trip to the dentist, complete with drilling noises and screams from the next room.
Phillips returns here to themes she’s explored before â€” sexual politics on “Where Are You Taking Me?” and “Slapstick Heart” (download), the latter written with R.E.M., and the consumerism that dominates pop culture in “Plastic Is Forever” and “Power World.” (The latter song plays as an homage to the Catholic philosopher Thomas Merton, whose ideas Phillips has explored elsewhere.) On “Entertainmen” she joins the intersection of sex and commerce; the pun of the title is about as clunky as the rest of the song (“Entertainmen/Watch me/Let me be your TV”). Having been rendered mute in her Die Hard role as the jaded terrorist’s girlfriend the year before, Phillips seems here to be pouring forth her character’s unexpressed angst over the state of American culture as discussed in the film â€” or maybe the album was simply a reaction to the process of making a cookie-cutter Hollywood blockbuster.
Whatever. The results were mostly desultory, the critical response was the worst of her career, and sales were so poor that Virgin dropped Phillips like a hot potato. First, of course, it released the contractual-obligation best-of Zero Zero Zero! in 1999; the song selection is spotty (nothing from The Indescribable Wow appears in its original incarnation), but it’s worthy for a few choice remixes.
Fan Dance (2001)
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The response to Omnipop might have forced any artist into a career re-evaluation, but the five years that preceded Fan Dance were eventful in other ways. There was, of course, the label change (to the Nonesuch imprint), but there was also the birth of a daughter, Simone, which led Phillips into temporary retirement. Crucial to understanding her re-emergence, however, is Burnett’s production of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, which proved the biggest success of his career, winning the Grammy Award as Album Of The Year, selling more than 5 million copies, and leading the music industry to re-discover its folk-blues roots. Phillips contributed only backing vocals, but the soundtrack’s influence on her and Burnett seemed clear upon the release of Fan Dance seven months later.
Shorn of electronica clutter, and even downplaying the Beatles influences of her earlier albums â€” Fan Dance strips away the barriers between the listener and Phillips’ enigmatic songwriting. Fortunately, she delivers one of her most delectable sets of songs, restoring her dedication to melody and revealing a matured outlook that de-emphasizes the spiritual and delves into the personal. Her themes frequently are reminiscent of a Brecht/Weill collaboration, and occasionally so are her tunes; “Edge Of The World” (download), in particular, plays like some of the most intelligent theater/cabaret music recorded in several decades.
Elsewhere, “Wasting My Time” employs a small chamber ensemble arranged by Van Dyke Parks; “Taking Pictures” borrows a guitar effect from “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” while lamenting that “nostalgia isn’t what it used to be”; and “How To Dream” cribs the opening of Marshall Crenshaw’s “Girls, Girls, Girls” before offering up a perhaps profound, perhaps obtuse bit of wisdom: “When we open our eyes and dream/We open our eyes.” When Phillips offers up the most straightforward and hopeful song of her secular career â€” “Love Is Everywhere I Go” â€” it’s hard not to imagine she’s joking, considering everything that’s come before. She leaps right back into her element with the album’s closer, the downright spooky “Say What You Mean” (download).
With a dozen tracks clocking in at a mere 33 minutes, Fan Dance marked a new direction that, while failing to win over many new fans, left Phillips’ fans craving more. Fortunately, there was more to come in this vein.
A Boot And A Shoe (2004)
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Phillips herself wasn’t sure why she gave her most recent album its title. Was it the juxtaposition of seeming opposites? Was it a metaphor for a songwriter whose spiritual tug-of-war leaves her feeling off balance, as though walking in a boot and a shoe? Whatever its latent intent as allegory, as an album A Boot And A Shoe offers a clarity that’s rare for Phillips, and it serves as a terrific signpost for her future endeavors. A companion piece to Fan Dance â€” Phillips refers to the two albums as “twins” â€” A Boot And A Shoe places the earlier album in context merely by revisiting its many charms, and demonstrating that acoustic cabaret/chamber pop is not merely a dalliance, but a permanent direction and one that’s eminently worth pursuing.
That’s not to say that A Boot And A Shoe doesn’t stand on its own. A brighter, more upbeat album than its predecessor, it features Phillips’ most lived-in vocals and signals a newfound confidence in her approach as well as in the push-pull between the spiritual and secular that has defined her career. Phillips sounds completely at home here, exuding warmth even as she’s stirring up her patented lyrical hornet’s nests. On “Reflecting Light” (download) she sounds downright humble, seeming (for the moment at least) to have found a personal, if not a doctrinal, state of grace.
Whether the songs feature piano, guitars or strings, the album is dominated by one of Burnett’s favorite devices: cascades of drums (performed by multiple percussionists, often recorded simultaneously), which propel the shuffling whimsy of “Draw Man” (download) as well as the Weillian “All Night.” Phillips even echoes Harry Nilsson on the delightful, inventive album opener “How To Quit.”
A Boot And A Shoe is a uniquely ingratiating album â€” until, seemingly out of nowhere, Phillips drops “Hole In My Pocket,” which over the course of just over a minute lays bare the emotions of 17 years before, when she began to seriously question her faith (and abandoned her Christian-music career). “My life fell through a hole in my pocket,” she sings. “I lost my solitude/I lost my balance/I lost my reverence and my voice.” In its devastation, its childlike major-key accompaniment, and its brevity, “Hole In My Pocket” seems intended to play a role not unlike “My Mummy’s Dead,” the coda to Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band LP.
But Phillips has one more trick up her sleeve: “One Day Late,” a sort of twisted take on the gospel chestnut “I’ll Fly Away” in which “help is coming,” but not soon enough. The pairing of the two songs, one despairing and the next ebullient, mirrors the juxtapositions of loss and rebirth that resound through Phillips’ work. Once again Phillips has distilled her obsessions to their essence, but on “One Day Late” she reaches the other side with a humor signaling that, while she’s still working through her issues, they’re no longer the cause of so much rage or grief.
Phillips’ career continues to look up, following the glowing reviews that greeted Fan Dance and A Boot And A Shoe. She has contributed a song and incidental music to the TV hit “Gilmore Girls,” and appeared on a 2006 episode. A new album, once expected this year, has been put off until 2008; in the meantime, she has launched small-scale club tours with piano and chamber-ensemble accompaniment, shedding new light on a diverse and fascinating body of music.