maybe that’s a strange title for an article about sam phillips, but I think todd rundgren’s well known album title / phrase (from the album of the same name, aka “AWATS”) fits sam perfectly.
sam phillips writes and performs pop songs of the highest quality, often using the simplest of tools, but there is definitely wizardry afoot (albeit of a different nature to todd’s) – and when she brings in other players to flesh out her acoustic guitar/voice or piano/voice compositions, a lot of really interesting things begin to happen. first of all – only sometimes, do they perform the traditional roles of backing musicians, and as time goes on, they are called upon to contribute more and more unusual items – van dyke parks‘ contributions to “the indescribable wow” being the first of many.
THE EARLY YEARS
but I will start at the beginning. once upon a time…there was a young singer who was part of the then fairly significant christian music scene. at that time, sam was known as “leslie phillips” – and in 1988, roughly coinciding with a major change in her music, her fourth and last album for myrrh (purportedly one of the main christian labels responsible for what was known as contemporary christian music) delivered, and she wanted to distance herself from the “leslie phillips” persona – so her forename changed: from “leslie” to “sam”.
because of the timing of this, that actually makes it very easy to delineate the two main parts of her career – part one, leslie phillips, christian record labels, devotional/pop music, part two – sam phillips, secular themes with a strong undercurrent of faith – less devotional, darker, but still amazing pop music.
I don’t believe that I have every leslie phillips or sam phillips song in my music collection, but I have most of them, and I enjoy them all. the oldest record I have is “dancing with danger”, which is from 1984 (this is her second album for the myrrh label – I was never able to locate a copy of her first album, “beyond saturday night”) and despite the sheer beauty of the then young “leslie phillips” voice – the arrangements cannot, unfortunately, help but sound VERY dated – not just because of the sound of 1980s synthesizers (mostly, not good sounds) and string machines, but also because for some weird reason, “christian artists” were expected to sound a certain, very well defined “way”. production values, on christian pop records from this era (not just leslie phillips albums, but pretty much all christian artists – with of course a few exceptions), are strange – well – just sort of stilted, predictable, as if every song is a power pop ballad whether it is or not, or worse, they take a smarmy pop song…and somehow, god only knows, they make it sound MORE smarmy…by (over) “producing” it (shudder).
leslie was never comfortable with the image that the christian labels had given her, calling her (bizarrely) “the christian cyndi lauper” – odd, since her music sounds NOTHING LIKE cyndi lauper. but – that’s what they did – and I think she suffered it for four albums, and then finally said goodbye to myrrh and the idea of working as a “christian artist” – she needed to express herself simply and clearly, and for that, she needed a new partner in crime – and that turned out to be legendary producer t-bone burnett.
so on some/most/all of the earliest material, there are issues with the arrangements, issues with good songs being arranged with the “I am a christian artist” sound, which to my mind, unfortunately, makes what could have been quite beautiful, very, very difficult to listen to and enjoy in 2013. of course, there were obligatory duets with male christian singers, and, nothing wrong with a duet, but that again, was part of what the christian labels expected, and possibly demanded, from many of their artists…
interestingly, “dancing with danger” ends with a special reprise version of “by my spirit” – the “radio version” – and instead of the routine, obligatory duet-with-male-christian-singer version – you get the whole song sung just by leslie (thank god, another chance to hear this song – without the annoying “duet” format!!!)
however – having said all that – I can still listen to “dancing with danger”, and it’s follow-up, 1985’s “black and white in a grey world” – which I prefer to “dancing” – in fact, really, sam is one of those artists that literally got better and better with each album. but – be forewarned, if 1980s production values, PLUS christian-label production values drive you mad…you may have difficulty listening to these records 🙂 when I do listen to them, I have to ignore a lot, and concentrate on the quality of the songs, and sam’s voice – not the production values, which are downright upsetting in some cases, such poor choices are made, production-wise. oh – they are slick, they are clever – but very dated sounding now, and I doubt sam phillips, 2013, would disagree…I do not know 🙂 I can tell you – starting with “the turning”, things begin to sound much, much better. and, most of “recollection” does not suffer from overproduction. all albums “the indescribable wow” forward have production values that you would expect of their time – not bad ones, just, of their time – and that is a good, good thing.
despite the very dated, very christian-label production values, there are some truly spine chilling vocal performances from sam on these early albums; and even the occasional great lead guitar solo (such as one of those aforementioned duets, an early version of “by my spirit”) – which also has a FANTASTIC vocal from leslie…really beautiful, and worth the pain of admission just to hear this track. her voice is simultaneously the strongest, the most passionate, and at the same time, incredibly vulnerable sounding in the world – an extraordinary sound. so if you seek this particular track out, ignore the obligatory male duet vocalist, ignore the arrangement, and just listen to leslie’s voice and the guitar solo. goose bumps – almost guaranteed.
I should spare a few moments for 1985’s “black and white in a grey world”. it starts with the almost funky title track, with leslie singing as if her life depended on it, with a strangely desperate / urgent sound to her voice – and, a really good lead guitarist, dan huff, trying hard to keep up with her vocal. in some ways, this record is just a continuation of “dancing with danger” – it does share a very similar ethos, although the production values are better, less disastrous, which makes it simultaneously much less dated sounding than “dancing with danger” and therefore, a lot more listenable.
I personally really like this record, and it contains the early, “produced” versions of some of the very best songs on “recollection” (including “when the world is new”, “your kindness”, “walls of silence” and “love is not lost”), so it’s nice to be able to compare and contrast them – fully produced versions on “black and white in a grey world” – demo or alternate versions on “recollection”. for me – the demos and stripped down versions are ALWAYS going to win – always.
what you are also witnessing, if you listen to these records in chronological order, is the amazing growth of sam phillips as writer, performer, engineer and producer. with each step forward, slowly at first, but gradually gathering her own momentum, until she eventually broke her relationship with the christian record labels – I assume because she realised how much they were dictating, and that she wanted her records to express her personality, her writing, her songs – so she took action. she moved to a different producer, and got away from the christian labels. and that saved her career, if she had continued down that road, I believe that the christian labels would have just ground her down until she quit or gave up in utter disgust.
luckily for us, sam’s determination and will are strong, very, very strong, and once she moved from the christian music world to the “secular” music world – well, amazing things began to happen, and also, we began to hear the real sam phillips, rather than the leslie phillips trapped within a sort of strange christian…wall of sound – and that’s when and where it all starts to really happen for her…
it was in 1987 that she had her first breakthrough, still as leslie rather than sam, but a transitional record, perhaps – which is a very remarkable album – strangely, a collection of demos and early works, called “recollection” that finally brought the “real leslie phillips” to light.
LOVE IS NOT LOST
“recollection” is the record that made me sit up and say to myself – this girl has something special. at first, it was little things that I noticed, such as the incredibly beautiful backing vocals on “love is not lost” (the version on “recollection”, I mean, not the one on “black and white in a grey world”) – this was the first time (and possibly, only time…) in my life that I ever felt chills from a BACKING VOCAL ! it was uncanny, and then I started noticing other very carefully worked out backing vocals on other tracks, and for myself, I found that the sound of this “leslie phillips” singing passionate melodies over the most incredibly beautifully crafted backing vocals in the universe – so five or more “leslie phillips'” at once…shivers, chills, and pure emotion put into music – incredibly stripped back versions, guitar, bass, drums, a bit of backwards guitar – and you have a work of true genius… “love is not lost”. indeed.
the lead vocal of “love is not lost” was smoking hot too, it’s a beautifully concise, really driving pop song – and for me, the best of the leslie phillips era, is mostly encapsulated on “recollection” – a fantastic collection, and stripped of much of the unnecessary “production”, the songs are startling in their simplicity, straightforward, girl-with-acoustic-guitar who wants to change the world – and does. repeatedly. over and over again. if any song every could be described as having “pop urgency” it’s “love is not lost”…a pop gem, and the haunting voice of leslie-soon-to-be-sam is chillingly beautiful in both the lead and backing singer roles…like a wave of beautiful vocal energy.
while I may prefer the later records, if you like sam’s music at all, you owe it to yourself to seek out these older records, despite the best efforts of the christian record labels to bury sam’s voice in some incredibly overproduced pop monsterpieces, there is still a huge value to going back and listening to these early, devotional pieces – she means every word, and her voice is just an incredible instrument of beauty.
released as “leslie phillips” –
beyond saturday night (1983)
“dancing with danger” (1984)
“black and white in a grey world” (1985)
“the turning” (1987)
“recollection (best of / compilation)” (1987)
which means that I still need to properly address both “the turning” and “recollection” – probably my favourite two albums made under the name “leslie phillips”.
THE BEGINNING OF THE CHANGE…THE TURNING
“the turning” is exactly that – her fourth album for christian label myrrh, but her first collaboration with producer, and future husband, t-bone burnett. so despite still being on a christian label, “the turning” is a very, very different sounding album to any of it’s predecessors, burnett bringing out the very best in leslie. no more over-produced christian label induced musical nightmares, the album seems (to me anyway, but I am an atheist, so I am probably incorrect about this) mostly secular in it’s themes, with a few obvious exceptions such as the not particularly inspiring album closer, “god is watching you”, which strangely, was penned by burnett.
besides that, the songs on “the turning” are once again, straight from the heart, straight to the heart, hard hitting, serious, beautiful pop music – the first of many successful burnett / phillips collaborations. obviously, 1987 was a pivotal year for sam – she released two albums, began a relationship with burnett as both producer and romantic partner…change was in the air, and in my personal opinion – it was all change for the better. leaving myrrh was the one of the best things that ever happened to phillips, from what I can tell…
the album also contains one of my favourite leslie phillips performances, the lovely “libera me” (also penned by burnett – but this time – a cracking little pop song) – a track that also appears on “recollection” in a different guise.
in fact, there are a large number of songs that phillips has recorded, re-recorded, and then released a demo or alternate of – as if she is never, ever satisfied – every year, she tries again, to see if she can get a “better version”. but that “never satisfied” thing is good for us, the listeners, because sometimes it means you get two or three different great versions of a really good song – such as “love is not lost”, “libera me”, “walls of silence” and many others – she just seems to want to “better” the previous version each time, so I would count this obsession of hers as a positive…and I hope, for her sake, that if she has “re-done” one of her songs two, three or four times – I hope that she is happy with at least one of the versions! my tendency is to like all the versions, but not equally. when in doubt – the version on “recollection” will be the best 🙂 I can pretty much guarantee that !
“the turning” was decidedly different, it did very well both in the christian and the secular markets, and some folk feel that it is her “high point” – the album that she cannot “top”. I am not sure I agree with that, I am mightily fond of certain later albums – in particular, “martinis & bikinis”, and, more recently, “don’t do anything”. but if we are just talking about the leslie phillips era (and not considering her later output as sam phillips) – well, I would rate “recollection” as number 1, with “the turning” a close second. which really makes “the turning” first – because “recollection” is, after all, “just” a collection / best of (but…what a collection it IS !!!).
as her final album in her “overtly christian” phase, as leslie phillips, “the turning” still contains songs of faith, but you can feel change in the wind, the songs have an edge to them not previously notable beneath the massed christian / production values. as noted above, and there is some song recycling going on – notably, one of my favourite of leslie’s songs, “love is not lost” appeared first on 1985’s “black and white in a grey world”; again, reworked, for 1987’s “the turning”, and, in still a different form, on 1987’s “recollection” – but I don’t mind that in the slightest – I absolutely love and adore that song, so I am happy because I have three versions instead of one! the more the better, when it comes to leslie or sam phillips tracks…and on all of the versions of that song, the combination of her lead vocal and the flowing, liquid beauty of her backing vocals all melt together in one absolutely stunning pop confection – wow. what a beautiful vocal arrangement.
“the turning” is also the only “leslie phillips” album that was re-released later under the name “sam phillips“, which is interesting, because that shows that, moreso than the first three records, that “the turning” is important to sam, or more important, than the first three – and she wanted it recognised to be part of the “sam phillips” era rather than the “leslie phillips” era – so to me, that says that in her mind, it was her first “true” record, the first one where she felt as if her personality and her actual self were finally coming through in the music the way she wanted. it’s also odd, because I personally always felt that “the turning” had more in common with the albums that came after it – “the indescribable wow” being the first one to follow it (the first for virgin, the first more secular album, the first where her name is sam not leslie) – than it ever did with the previous three records. it just…belongs with the sam phillips (and therefore, does NOT belong in the leslie phillips) catalogue. that makes sense to me, musically, too.
burnett’s production style, as we have learned over the past several years since he’s become much more high profile, was an absolute boon to phillips. burnett instinctively knew how to get the best out of her voice, and his arrangements (some of which are quite strange and unorthodox) – were an absolute breath of fresh air compared to the first few myrrh releases. suddenly…we could REALLY HEAR sam, and what she was saying, more importantly, we could hear her vision for her songs, as interpreted through burnett (who basically, I think, stood back and let sam do what she wanted…and captured it on rolling tape) and it all just became so much clearer…everything became clearer. not dissimilar to a famous 1968 david crosby moment, as producer of her first solo album, when crosby had joni mitchell play and sing for a few of his (very lucky) friends for the first time…saying to them “listen to THIS….” – a shiver and a sigh. burnett would have known that with phillips, he was on to an extraordinary talent, while working with burnett gave sam the freedom to express her true self on record for the first time. and what a powerful musical cocktail that is…shaken, not stirred 🙂
leslie’s lead vocals seem higher in the mix; the title track has a wonderfully stark feel to it, and burnett’s contributions (excepting the rather predictable “god is watching you”) – a co-writer on the beautiful album opener, “river of love” and the writer of the very poppy “carry you” – adds another element to a great batch, the final batch if you will, of ten songs from leslie phillips. from my viewpoint – well, there is value in all of the “leslie phillips” catalogue, but I can recommend first “recollection”, and then “the turning” – as the most developed, least overproduced of the lot – well worth a listen – recommended most highly. “recollection”, in particular, is essential listening…
THE BIG CHANGE
and that brings us to the moment of the big change. 1988, free of myrrh, and newly signed to virgin records, “leslie” is reborn as “sam”, and sam phillips moves gracefully, almost unnoticed, from “christian artist” to mainstream pop artist on major label. her first record for virgin, 1988’s “the indescribable wow” is a fantastic debut from what must have seemed to the world like a “new artist” – the leslie phillips persona played down completely, and sort of “starting over” with a new forename, a new record label, a new producer and husband in t-bone burnett, and, a new record.
ten new songs (no re-runs here!!), eight from sam, and two co-written with t-bone burnett. burnett would, in the end, go on to produce every sam phillips album from 1987’s “the turning”, to 2004’s “a boot and a shoe” – and here was literally, a perfect marriage of producer and artist – in the studio, and in life – a fantastic musical couple. I like this first album for virgin a lot, but I will say – it’s the same effect – beginning with “the indescribable wow” – each record just gets steadily better and better.
the urgency of the lead vocal on the second track on the album, an urgency that now seems purer, less desperate than before… “I don’t know how to say goodbye to you”, with yet again very beautiful backing vocals…is startling, her voice insistent, you can feel the sense of being ripped apart, the fact that she literally cannot say goodbye to someone she loves – for three minutes and nineteen seconds…you are there, you are feeling those feelings – everyone has lost someone they love – and letting go, as we know…is incredibly difficult. sam takes that age old struggle – and turns it into a three minute pop masterpiece. to me, a song like “I don’t know how to say goodbye to you” is damn near as perfect a piece of pop music as you can get. and her voice… indescribable, vulnerable, anxious, urgent, hurting…unable to let go…but knowing she has to. awesome!
DARKNESS AND LIGHT
and that brings me to an odd observation about the music of sam phillips. sometimes, not always, she does something that shouldn’t really be possible. she takes a serious lyric, about a serious topic, that perhaps represents disappointment or fear or unhappiness – and dresses it into an upbeat, positive sounding (musically, I mean – major key, bright, etc.) pop song. so the words are “down”, but the melody and chords and arrangement are “up” – so you get this weird, indefinable melancholia about some of the songs…a very sad lyric wrapped in a very happy “sounding” piece of music. a wonderful musical dichotomy.
I think that’s a great quality, and not ever pop writer can do this – usually, pop songs are either up (think, the beatles, “ob—la-di, ob-la-da”), or down (think, the move, “blackberry way”) – more rarely do they embrace down lyrics with up music. but somehow, sam does this not once, but often – and it’s just brilliant. certainly “I don’t know how to say goodbye to you” falls into this strange “lyrics down / music up” container, with it’s uber thin beatlesque guitar figure and lush background vocals, and chiming finger picked guitars – and the most insistent snare drum beat – and when that bridge hits you, her voice is just so full of pain and hurt – and the music is…happy ! it’s the oddest thing, but I love it.
a few other tracks on this and on other albums – “I can’t stop crying” is another one, although it’s not quite such a dichotomy, it’s more like “down lyrics with neutral music” 🙂 but I think this is genius, when it hits the chorus, it’s a bright, positive melody as she is singing the words “I can’t stop crying” – brilliant! dark against light, or light against dark…
“flame” is clearly the son of the beatles “and I love her” – and while this is a sam phillips tune, the arrangement seems pure t-bone burnett to me – and it’s a great atmosphere – first, just the verse, with only one voice – the percussion tapping gently away to sam’s strummed acoustic guitars, lead acoustic guitar, and then…the magic starts to creep in, first, a stunning bridge, with one of those goose bump-inducing vocal melodies…then back to our gentle chorus…with great guitar accents added in, a really, really beautiful song despite it’s strong resemblance to a certain beatles song !
and then we have something new, in a song like “remorse” – a rocking, hard hitting band – who play at speed – sam can barely spit the words out the tempo is so demanding – but the background vocals, again, steal the show – spine chilling beauty each time they appear…what an amazing vocal sound, so now we have really hard hitting power pop, flying bass, snapping snare drum – and sam – flying in over the top – and when those waves of backing vocals arrive – and later on in a really strangely syncopated break – wow, it really is the “indescribable wow” – a fantastic major label debut – “and me so sorry…”.
fantastic guitar, both rhythm and lead – take the song to a strange instrumental plane, there was NEVER a “leslie phillips” song as strange as this! really amazing guitar work from t-bone burnett, who is surely one of the most underrated guitarists around. then, the last part of “remorse” is this strange, languid guitar instrumental – that’s just weird – definitely not part of any “formula” pop song with a verse / chorus / verse / bridge / chorus / verse arrangement.
“what do I do” is another oddity, super multi-tracked vocals atop a moving bed of strings – a hundred sam phillips floating above this strange bed of acoustic guitar and strings…I’ve never heard a pop song as odd as this before. every song on this record is like a little mini pop symphony, but burnett always wisely showcases his new secret weapon: the awe-inspiring vocal chords of ms. sam phillips or maybe I should say “ms. sam burnett” 🙂
once again, perhaps even moreso than on “the turning”, sam’s voice is front and centre, burnett making the most of her incredibly expressive pipes. “the indescribable wow” is an absolute success – a fantastic achievement and a great introduction to sam “definitely not a christian artist anymore” phillips, and her beautiful pop songs – a really lovable record, and always a favourite. it’s strange too, because while burnett produced both sam’s last christian record and her first “secular” record the next year – those two albums could not really sound much more different! OK the answer to that mystery might be right there in the sentence, one of them is christian, the other “secular” – but even production-wise, they are very, very different animals – a lot of “the turning” is somewhat stark, while a lot of the indescribable wow is very lush, layered and sporting a new melodic and harmonic beauty that was only glimpsed before – now, it invades practically every song 🙂 – and that is a good thing
“the turning” is serious, moody, intense, while “the indescribable wow” is a bright, poppy, snappy kind of record – possibly the “most upbeat” record sam has ever made…but lyrically, still fairly dark and always inquisitive – always questing, always questioning – that’s always been the way. and this difference is just one example of sam moving from style to style, musical persona to musical persona – in an almost bowiesque way – well, perhaps not as extreme as that, but each new album brought something new to the table, as both phillips and burnett hone their respective roles as artist and producer…although t-bone really almost always seems to end up playing some instrument on some songs on his production projects.
having produced, basically, six albums over six years – five for myrrh, one for virgin, finally, a gap appeared between albums. this is a healthy sign – no artist or band can produce an album a year for long, without burning out or becoming very repetitive – so I for one was happy to wait a couple years for sam’s next album to arrive. and when it did, I was not disappointed – because once again, while “the indescribable wow” is a very good album, sam’s sixth studio album, “cruel inventions”…is even better. well worth waiting a mere two years for.
POP INVENTIONS AND AN ELVIS SIGHTING
starting out with a truly awesome guitar riff, the lead off-track of sam phillips‘ sixth studio album “cruel inventions”, entitled “lying”, let’s us know right away that sam has undergone yet another miraculous musical transformation – on the first track, she starts out the lead-off song singing in a really strangely low pitched voice, which only rises up for the “I’d be lying…” chorus – then, more great lead guitar (this time, on this new sam phillips record, it’s both burnett and the great marc ribot on guitar – but, as it turns out, it’s none other than elvis costello playing the awesome guitar riff on this track!!) – and then, suddenly, the very, very strange “bridge with strings” comes out of nowhere – but, those strings aren’t strings – well, they are, sort of – they are created from a keyboard called a “chamberlin” (a relative of the mellotron) as arranged by and played by the remarkable van dyke parks – and how burnett and phillps managed to get parks to not just arrange, but to actually play on their album – well, that ups “cruel inventions” musical ante considerably, as amazing “cellos” and virtual “string sections” appear from nowhere, not to mention eerie chamberlin flute and voice clones as on the title track…
and all over this remarkable record. the presence of parks, and the chamberlin, puts this particular phillips release into a class of it’s own – and the “string” arrangements here, are not like any others…beautiful work.
the chamberlin is a really lovely and unique, but little heard instrument that impacts the sound of this album heavily – giving it a character unlike any sam phillips album before or since.
the second track on “cruel inventions”, “go down”, is so incredibly wonderful and strange, I seriously doubt that I have words to describe this piece – which, strangely, among many odd musical events – features background vocals that are panned hard to one side (something I’ve never noticed before on any record – fabulous idea!!) and a circular vocal that can only be described as being like the sam phillips version of a gentle giant circular vocal – except instead of five gentlemen from portsmouth singing in a modern day “round”, it’s five sam phillips’, singing an incredible vocal creation – just fantastic.
more highly developed, circular and just plain beautiful vocal harmonies abound on this record, again, on the very catchy “standing still” (one of my favourites from the album) – this is an album of vocal and instrumental experimentation, and it’s wonderful hearing sam sing through a thick flanger, in the very cool “tripping over gravity”, which also features a very innovative vocal arrangement; where a chorus of “sams” is dropped into a huge delay over and over again – while the dry flanged lead vocal soars far above. “missing….logic….tripping over gravity” – a very atypical and very unexpected piece of music, unlike any song sam has done before or since. if I didn’t know better, I’d almost think it was inspired by progressive music – but who knows what music sam listened to at this, or any time – you can’t really tell by listening to her records, because she is a force unto herself – she’s sam.
the presence of marc ribot also increases the musical cache of this record, his guitars are tasteful, beautiful, and essential to the success of this record. “tripping over gravity” becomes a hypnotic, almost ambient ecstasy; the delayed voices joined by beautiful, beautiful chamberlin strings…a mesmerising chorus that seems to go on forever and ever and ever…which then suddenly ends with two or three very odd loops playing out the tune – absolutely bonkers arrangement, more science fiction than normal pop music…if there was such a thing as “progressive pop” – this song would probably qualify as the first proper example of the genre…
“now I can’t find the door” – a tale of insomnia, not induced by alcohol, but by some kind of night time anxiety – this is a straight ahead rocker – with it’s beautiful “away from you, comrade…away from you, baby”… fantastic lyrical imagery, delivered with a strange throwaway quality, but underpinned by the classic phillips vocal urgency. sam’s voice, now more mature, so world-weary, always filled with passion, the human embodiment of the perpetually-broken heart – and this mostly drumless piece rocks, s0 when the snare does finally enter – more circular gentle giant style vocals appear on an unexpected, beautiful centrepiece / bridge – music magic from phillips and producer burnett.
“raised on promises” features a sinister spy movie / sci fi guitar riff, and a bittersweet voice that is possibly singing a bit autobiographically…with terrific “ahhhhh” background vocals – brash and impudent backing voices – then, as the song builds up, more and more vocal harmonies are added in, until the “massed sams” absolutely overwhelm the listener, with their insistent beauty. when the bridge arrives, the secret weapon appears again – van dyke parks and his chamberlin – with 17 seconds of incredibly beautiful orchestral sound – and then he’s gone again, or at least, mixed back down…these sudden mysterious bursts of chamberlin just add to the mystery and beauty of this record.
the album’s closer, it’s the string-driven van dyke parks “miracle string sound” again, with “sam phillips pop song” dropped on top – it’s almost as if she wrote the songs to fit the strings, rather than writing the song and then having parks add the strings – this string arrangement is really cool, and the title-as-chorus really sticks in your head “that’s where the colors don’t go” – and another amazing bridge, with fabulous orchestrations – and then, van dyke parks “takes a solo” – and you get four bars of absolutely amazing orchestra (via the chamberlin keyboard, of course) including, a “penny lane” style “trumpet” as the chorus repeats in an endless, joyous fade out – an amazing juxtaposition of pop song, amazing pop singer, amazing pop producer, and genius string / orchestral arranger – working in perfect harmony.
THE BASS MAN COMETH – LIGHT INTO DARK
for the next album, 1994’s “martinis & bikinis”, the longest gap between phillips albums ever, a full three year pass before this masterpiece is unveiled. and that says it all – the album opener, a very short track called “love and kisses”, which contains the title in it’s lyrics (“martinis and bikinis for our friends…”, well let’s put it this way, I love that little song so much, that I actually did a cover of it on my TEAC 3340S, which has never been released. that’s the only sam phillips cover I’ve ever done, and I did a very, very faithful rendition of it – all 0:56 seconds of it. one of the most enjoyable mini projects I’ve ever had the pleasure to work on.
viewed by many as her musical high point (particularly, within the “sam phillips” years), again, some say that “martinis & bikinis” is the height of sam’s achievement, and in some ways, I can’t really argue with them. featuring an even more amazing band than last time, this time, there is no van dyke parks (well, one cameo role, he arranges the strings on “baby I can’t please you” – but other than that, nothing), but, along with phillip’s stalwart sidemen t-bone burnett (guitars, basses, and many others), mickey curry (drums), david masfield (violin, multi-instrumentalist) and jerry scheff on bass, is added the suddenly out of work colin moulding , of XTC (coming off of the 1992 pop XTC masterpiece, “nonsuch”), getting melodic pop bassist extraordinaire moulding was an absolute coup. he was free – sam asked him to play on the album, so he did.
that might not seem like a big deal, but the bass guitar playing on this session, practically drives the entire album – it simply rocks, in a “I am the OTHER paul mccartney” way – moulding at this point, was a very accomplished bassist and writer in his own right, confident, melodic – and knowing a thing or two about pop music, too – and he also is the only other producer that sam ever worked with during the t-bone burnett years – colin co-produced the very infectious pop single “baby I can’t please you” – which, had it been sung by andy partridge or colin, would have sounded somewhat like a lost XTC track.
but the poppy then moves to the deadly serious, as “circle of fire” with it’s shockingly odd guitars, sticks in your brain, and the biting, deadly, sinuous vocals, with their tight harmony – followed by the most spastic slap back echo guitar solo I’ve ever heard – it’s absolutely over the top –and is PERFECT for the song – meanwhile, mickey curry on drums is working in perfect rhythm with colin moulding’s flying bass…it’s just perfect, the perfect rock vehicle for sam’s strident, serious tune. her voice sounds quite brittle on this track, I love it when she really reaches for a low note – and nails it..fantastic.
then we have one of the most beautiful sam phillips songs ever, the delicate, heartbreaking “strawberry road” – which again, contains instrumentation that had not previously been featured a lot on sam phillips records: harpsichord, hammond organ, and cello – and used to great effect, I love the harpsichord part in this piece, and her vocal is heartbreakingly beautiful…leading us to the road – the “strawberry road, where the dream fades, down between our longing and desire…”
beautifully chorused guitars work with organ, and then cello, for a very serious, almost pseudo-classical coda, that gradually fades to nothing. a pop gem, a really lovely little song…oddly peaceful, like a personal song about a place of sanctuary.
then comes what is another of my favourites from this record, or rather, (along with the aforementioned “love and kisses”), and that is the pop master class of “when I fall”. sam’s trademark “chorus repetition”, a constant ride cymbal, colin moulding on the bass…simple, straightforward guitar lines and leads, but it’s that voice, something about the way the second and third “when I fall” is sung, something catches in my throat, and I can almost feel sam falling – you almost feel how hurt and lost and frightened she seems, and her desperation to not fall, but she knows she is falling – but, “I think you’ll be there when I fall…” so there is hope…but it’s tenuous. the sound of sam’s voice on this song is a heart stopping sound…really sensitive and really lovely.
amazing “ahhhs” appear from nowhere, more insanely beautiful backing vocals – for the lovely little bridge, which is followed by really beatlesque / xtcesque lead and reverse guitar solos…leading to the final verse and chorus, colin’s bass climbing around subtly in the background, the hammond reappearing to give it some glory, the beatle guitars chiming…it’s fabulous!
more beautiful backwards guitar in the repeating chorus coda, and a long fade with hypnotic guitar and organ finally takes “when I fall” to it’s lovely conclusion.
“same changes” is another real rocker, with colin’s bass pulsing and throbbing beneath another fabulous tight harmony chorus from sam, her voice so confident on this record, just singing her heart out, and making her songs come alive with the help of the best band she ever had – I mean come on, colin moulding of XTC on bass !!!!!, mickey curry on drums – and t-bone burnett – yes, there are additional players, but that “core band” – they just rock – and “same changes” is one of the best, love the drum part, love the bass, love the guitars, love sam’s massed vocals…including a strange circular bridge where the band hangs back, and then dives into a great lead solo, that just rocks – a fantastic tune – including some trumpets mixed in there for effect! very strange.
then…comes the moment of terror, with the truly frightening “black sky” – a flat out dirge/tirade against the culture of nuclear war, and “diggers, drillers and sellers…” – with the clear message of the chorus:
“we won’t stop…until we’re underneath the black sky”.
the ultimate destruction of mankind via the horrific weapons that mankind invented – missiles are mentioned, but the craziest thing is this “la la la” chorus that follows the chorus proper – it’s so dark, there is none of the characteristic sam phillips here, especially in a song that contains the line “the forest raped into desert” – you can tell that in this case, this isn’t a light pop song, but a deadly, deadly serious, questioning, warning song – utterly apocalyptic – that warns us, that if we continue down this path of weapons and oil, money and not taking care of our planet – that we WILL end up with nothing, having destroyed everything via our greed, and our desire for power.
against an eerie backing of strange, strange guitars and throbbing drums, and not much else, sam’s stark warning vocal just stops you in your tracks – the album having gone from pop / happy / light to darker than dark in the space of one song – “black sky”. heed it’s warning, there is nothing frivolous about this lyric, or this amazing vocal performance…and once again, sam has come up with a song unlike ANTHING she ever, ever did…before or since… a true one-off, an utterly unique song and performance, which I think is fantastic.
“the black sky” is so strange, so unique – and that’s the genius of sam phillips – you are listening to a great pop record, everything bright, happy and positive – and then suddenly, you are plunged into the pitch black darkness, the world ends with a black sky, the stars gone – and it’s of course, all down to what mankind has been getting up to…and sam’s voice is the voice of truth, chilling truth, and when you hear the condemnation, the summing up of the crimes – well, be prepared, it isn’t pretty – not at all.
TRIUMPHANT… JOYOUS… YET LONGING
sam then returns to pop mode with the most excellent “fighting with fire”, which is then followed by another real favourite track of mine, the obviously (at least somewhat) autobiographical “I need love” – which follows the sam phillips pop song formula perfectly, but the urgency of her voice on the “I need love” chorus grabs you right by the throat and doesn’t let go – and interestingly, we have one of the few open references by sam, regarding her departure from the christian labels when she sings “I need God…not the political church” – in a somewhat “telling” variation of the chorus.
“the wheel of the broken voice” to me is a strange choice of penultimate track, but over the years I’ve grown to love it – I think it’s more about burnett than phillips, but that’s just an impression I have – I could be entirely wrong. it used to be my least favourite song on the record, but now I like it a lot, so – go figure. it’s perhaps a bit rhythmically strange, so placing it that near the end maybe harms the perfect, driving pace of the record up till this point.
ALL I WANT IS THE TRUTH
then, to finish off this most remarkable of albums, sam does something completely unexpected: she covers a john lennon song, turning in what must be one of the very, very best covers of this song out there, the hard-hitting “gimme some truth” (from the “imagine” album) – which lyrically at least, fits right in with the themes of this record. not an easy song to cover, and burnett wisely chooses to not even attempt to emulate george harrison’s amazing slide guitar parts, instead opting for a lovely, psychedelic pop version – and he let’s sam’s voice carry the arrangement.
which it really does, I mean, no one can hope to “top” the vitriol and anger that john put into his original version (which is purported to be about the vietnam war – which is believable, given the time frame of it’s writing, 1971), and I don’t think phillips and burnett are in any way trying to “top” it, but you do feel that sam agrees very much with the sentiment of the lyric – and when she gets to that chorus, practically spitting out the words, “just gimme some truth” – even though it’s the (normally) gentle, lovely voice of sam phillips – the anger at being lied to, by the government, maybe by the church, or by people she trusted who let her down – comes through loud and clear. “just gimme some truth…all I want is the truth…”
“martinis & bikinis” might well be my favourite sam phillips recording, and possibly my favourite sam or leslie phillips recording…it’s difficult, I change my mind all the time, one day it’s “recollection”, the next, it’s “martinis…” so I will just have to leave it open-ended for the time being. but I do recommend this album to anyone who loves good quality pop music, and, the presence of xtc bassist colin moulding gives it that extra pop sheen that for me, is irresistible.
not to mention, it’s a collection of some of the very best songs ever written by sam, and it’s just outstanding in terms of composition, arrangement, performance and mixing – a great record, a classic pop masterpiece. with one terrifying break in the form of “the black sky”, this is an album of urgent, driving pop music with some of the most beautiful vocals you will ever hear, underpinned by one of the masters of melodic bass playing – you can’t really go wrong.
FROM DARK…TO DARKEST
it was another two years to the next sam phillips record, during which time, once again…everything changes. “omnipop (it’s only a flesh wound, lambchop)” has to be the oddest of the odd within this collection of pop albums. it’s the most “difficult” of albums for me to connect with personally, it’s very, very much of it’s time, and it embraces technology as only an album made in 1996 can – wholeheartedly. in an ever-not-so-slightly over-the-top way. so for those of us who had grown familiar with the sam phillips catalogue – it was a shock to the system. a complete change.
gone are the gentle acoustic guitars, the pianos, the lovely background vocals – and in their place, a stark sounding, almost alien sam phillips sings strange melodies over odd, electronic, robotic backings – album opener “entertainmen” is a perfect example…this is not the sam phillips we were just getting used to – this is yet another sam phillips, electronic music explorer extraordinaire.
now, if I detach myself from the history, if I set aside all of the albums from 1987 – 1994, if I put “martinis & bikinis” out of my mind, and I listen to “omnipop” as if I’d never heard sam phillips before – well, I would probably like it a whole lot better to begin with! it’s not a user friendly album, and I’d be curious to hear what sam has to say about it now, in 2013.
the dissonant musical slap in the face that is “plastic is forever” is another strange entrant to this new “just how strange can this get” song writing competition, and while it’s clever, it’s not particularly melodic or memorable. speaking of memorable, the third track, “animals on wheels” is certainly that, and the mental imagery that this odd song creates is certainly unique – and odd though it is, it’s quite catchy, and you do find yourself singing it for the next few days after listening to the album. it’s the first song on the album that really appeals to me, so it’s a bit less strange and more recognisable – but just barely. almost a melody…
the rest of this album is like a blur to me, when I play it, I remember the songs, but when I leave again – they are instantly forgotten, expect perhaps for the catchy “animals on wheels”. even the jaunty rhythm of “zero zero zero” fails to move me, and I just find myself wanting to move on through the tracks – yes, there are some decent songs, some even great vocal performances, but overall – this album is just a bit strange for my taste.
“help yourself” is really, really too much for me – with a very, very dissonant arrangement of jazz instruments, that grow horribly out of nowhere, over and over again. “your hands” has a beautiful vocal, but the melody seems flat, dead – terrorised. on “your hands”, her voice feels choked and halted, and I just don’t connect with these rather strange arrangements of potentially good songs – it’s definitely a “kitchen sink” approach – they had all kinds of awesome new studio technology available – and by god, they were determined to use every bit of it. and sometimes, sam’s lovely vocal, just gets swallowed up and lost in all the tech.
finally, “power world” actually sounds like a sam phillips song again – thank god, an ordinary pop song, with drums, bass, guitars and vocals – love it. a bright spot in an otherwise odd sea of musical ideas -“our ideas of perfect are so imperfect…” – how beautiful is that? I think that is a great line, a great lyric – so there is some redemption, but why do we have to sit through six very, very weird songs to get to something recognisable? that makes “omnipop” hard going.
and then you get to something like the song “(skeleton)” – which, if it were on an adrian belew album, would make perfect sense – but as a sam phillips track, it doesn’t really convince…first of all, it’s instrumental, and I love it – but it just seems misplaced.
“where are you taking me” is another return to pop form (or at least, pop form 1996 style), and includes some great flute mellotron or chamberlin, but as a song, it’s a bit scary – sam sounds simultaneously terrifying and terrified – a very, very odd song – with some great guitars, but not a song you want to put on if you feel you need cheering up 🙂
then you get an odd little pop gem like the also out of place “compulsive gambler” – which at 0:48 seconds in length, is basically over before it starts – but I love it.
“faster pussycat to the library” is a cool and intelligent pop song (great title, too – I love the way she titles her songs), another improvement, with beautiful carnival chamberlin (or similar) sounds atop a sparse rock backing. a lovely vocal, too, but as a tune – nothing you can whistle along to…”if you don’t know what to do, I’ll make it up for you…” – lovely strings and flutes, warped and crazy…kind of cool.
album closer “slapstick heart” is slinky, and features a beautiful vocal – in fact, even though I find this record to be a bit strange, I can’t fault the sound of her voice – which is always compelling, no matter what the musical context.
if you bought all of the other sam phillips records and liked them all – then there will be a lot for “omnipop” to offer you – but if you are not a die hard fan, this might be the one album you might give a miss – but you would be missing out on something that is utterly unique and of it’s time – and with a title like “omnipop (it’s only a flesh wound, lambchop)” – well, that should be warning enough not to expect a “typical” pop album – and indeed, this is about as atypical as they come.
COMPILING, COMPILING AND COMPILING…
a previously unreleased track called “disappearing act” starts us out on our first collection of sam phillips song’s, “zero zero zero” from 1998. a strange reverse guitar, an oddly wailing female voice in the background, and sam’s voice with a lone bass and acoustic guitar…it’s a nice little song, a pleasant start to a somewhat odd journey through the last few albums.
moving from the new to the strong, the powerful “I need love” from 1994’s “martinis & bikinis” gets us off to a good start – a good choice from her strongest album.
this is followed by “holding onto the earth”, from “the indescribable wow”, another nice bit of phillips musical history. this is presented in a very different musical arrangement from the original album version, although it’s not marked as “alternate”, I believe it is…another example of sam re-writing her own history, by making changes to songs over and over again, always seeking that perfect version.
next is another pop masterpiece from “martinis & bikinis” – the very catchy “signposts”, again with that trademark colin moulding bass line – brilliant.
an alternate mix of the lovely “where the colors don’t go” follows – but, not terrifically different to the album version – just subtly different, but again, she can’t resist to do something different with an existing song, which I think is so cool – and I’m very pleased to have two different versions of this lovely song, taken from 1991’s “cruel inventions” album.
next, representing 1996’s “omnipop (it’s only a flesh wound, lambchop)” is the very strange but very catchy “animals on wheels” – a very cool and very odd song.
leaning heavily on the brilliance of “martinis & bikinis”, a third track from that record, the previously described anti-war dirge “the black sky” – a chilling condemnation of nuclear war and other related sins of mankind. this is an essential track, so I’m very glad it’s included on this compilation – a good choice.
next is another remix, this time, another track from “the indescribable wow”, the intensely beatlesque “flame”, and while it’s not miles away from the original mix, it’s great to have two different versions of this excellent early sam phillips track.
then we have something very, very unusual “ribot tripping over gravity” – “ribot” referring to her lead guitarist, this some kind of very cryptic, odd mix featuring his guitar, but again, at 1:15, it’s more of an impression of a song rather than an actual song – and it bears very little resemblance to the original “tripping over gravity” – an enigmatic, strange remix – just adding to the mystery and privacy that surrounds phillips’ music – closed sessions, no cameras – just musicians (which is really how it should be, probably…).
this is followed by an odd little song, “hole in time”, that I wouldn’t have chosen, but again, this is not your typical compilation, it’s very, very unusual, and the strange choices of songs along with the enigmatic remixes, alternates and altered versions – makes “zero zero zero” a must-have collection.
the next track, entitled “you lost my mind”, is another unreleased piece, with a driving drum beat, and a lovely fast shuffle feel, it feels more like a demo than a finished track, but it’s raw, it’s real, and it fits right in on this strange, strange compilation. a great harmony vocal bridge graces the centre of the piece, which has a really snappy rhythm section – love the bass and drums, whoever they are played by…
the very poppy title track of 1991’s “cruel inventions” is next, with an almost fripp-like repetitive guitar riff, which is quickly overwhelmed by beautiful chamberlins and massed sam phillips background vocals – this is a great pop song, with it’s fabulous hand claps and melodic guitars…
another one that I would not have picked, “fighting with fire”, which is a great song, but it might not be my first choice for a “best of” – but “zero zero zero” is really not a “best of” – it’s a compilation, and these unusual track choices, odd remixes and so on, make this such a unique and excellent record.
an alternate version of “lying” is next, with that trademark elvis costello guitar, is an absolutely spot on choice, another one from “cruel inventions” – a great song in any version, fantastic lead vocal – love it. happy to have two versions of this one, too…
finally, bringing all of these disparate musical strings together with one beautiful, anthemic song – the only song, the only possible choice for the final position – the exquisite “strawberry road” – just a lovely, lovely song, and a vocal to die for – sweet with a sense of longing – what a perfect way to end 1998’s “zero zero zero”, and the string arrangement is just heartbreaking, as are sam’s amazing backing vocals…just stunning song craft, I wish I could write a song half this good.
since “zero zero zero” was an “obligatory compilation” that was “owed” to virgin, it was not a real surprise when virgin dropped sam after the release of “zero zero zero”.
INTO THE VOID…
then…silence. touring, living her life, no more albums from virgin, who had by this time, dropped sam – five years pass.
newly signed to nonesuch records, finally, in 2001, sam produced a new album – the much more personal, stripped down, acoustic-based “fan dance”.
after the odd mis-step of 1996’s “omnipop”, “fan dance” is a return to roots, a back to basics record if there ever was on, so now we have an almost complete absence of technology – it’s just lots of acoustic guitars, and sam’s now mature voice – a lot less vibrato, and a new purity – the lead off track, which is also the title track, is like a palate refresher, instantly washing away the excesses of the virgin years, and giving sam a fresh start – and it feels great, her voice is in perfect shape, and the stripped down arrangements really suit. compared to the work of the late 90s – the albums made after 2000, mostly are much starker, the instrumentation is careful, never overdone, really appropriate and well-chosen. sam obviously learned a lot from her long association with t-bone burnett, and she has put it to good use ever since.
this track has an almost oriental feel to it, “when I do the fan dance…” and I love the sound of it, it’s just so pure, and so real – it’s like we just got back the sam phillips of “martinis & bikinis” or “cruel inventions” – and it’s nice to have her back.
“edge of the world” starts with a piano, which leads the piece, an absolutely beautiful sound– an old upright (or digital version of an old upright) – and the chorus “at the edge of the world looking up…” a beautiful descending melody – I can’t say enough good about this fantastically beautiful piano and acoustic drama, great vocal, evocative piano, the simple arrangement – it’s truly, exquisitely beautiful – a hidden gem in sam’s catalogue – and the sudden, odd piano ending is breathtaking. exactly three minutes long – the perfect quirky, wonderful pop song.
“five colors” is just bass and acoustic guitar – and that VOICE. when the harmonies come in, when the “massed sam phillips voice choir” brings in that undeniable harmony – it’s just all about the shivers and the goose bumps, and it’s really more about these songs, which are so good – this song almost sounds like a beautiful crowded house or finn brothers song – and the vocal harmonies are absolutely exquisitely beautiful. I can’t say enough good about this song or about this album – it’s back to basics, back to reality – and it’s all about the songs…and that voice.
a strange ambient non-solo takes us out, to the end of “five colors”, and onto the next track, which is the string quartet “wasting my time” – which again, is a great device, we’ve moved from acoustic guitar, to piano led, to acoustic guitar, and now, for the fourth track, it’s a string quartet – so a different approach for each track, but still a back to basics technique, and it works great – her voice sounds amazing atop the strings, and there is no other pop song in the universe quite like it – and the string arrangement, which is quite odd, a bit quirky in places, is a unique musical experience in itself…and the string outro is just the weirdest thing yet…
next comes “taking pictures”, which is dark and mysterious, with piano, guitar, some kind of leslied guitar or similar, this is quite beatlesque and is just pleasant and lovely – “places I go are never there…” and “nostalgia isn’t what it used to be” are just two of the lyrical ideas here, and the whole beatle-y mood of the piece is quite compelling – and, at 1:53, it’s gone before it really gets started.
“how to dream” – acoustic guitar and vocals, lots of harmonising vocals “when we open our eyes and dream…” – straightforward acoustic guitar song, with beatlesque over tones, bass guitar, minimal drum kit – it’s all about the voice, and when the harmonies are present, the voices – a really catchy chorus, and those “ahh, ahh, ahh ahh ahhs” are simply to die for…I absolutely love this song, with it’s weird guitar sounds, and super tight harmonies – it’s exquisite.
then comes something completely different, the very unique “soul eclipse”, an odd bluesy guitar atop a noisy plodding rhythm, sounding like a scratchy 1930s blues record, racing along, with some suddenly appearing then disappearing again, great fuzz chords dropped in – and all the while, sam’s voice floats over the top – calm, reasonable, questioning…a fantastically odd arrangement, but it works. one of the very oddest of all sam phillips songs, but somehow, it works…
“incinerator”, a title I might expect from rammstein, but not from sam phillips – but there it is – another one with an odd, vintage, old-timey feel to it’s backing – which features a lot of stuff going backwards, while an oddly-thin-strangely-EQ’d guitar line travels along – the whole EQ of the piece is odd, with only sam’s voice sounding like it should – the backing is purely strange, but absolutely perfect for the song, I love this odd, odd track – which clocks in at just over two minutes and then is suddenly gone.
back to beatlesque pop, with acoustic guitars, bass and drum kit – the exquisite “love is everywhere I go” – a really, really beautiful song – possibly the most beautiful on the album – it totally channels late 60s beatles, really beautiful overlapping vocals, with a really simple chord progression – then, a mind-blowingly unique and wonderful bridge takes us right back to that irresistible chorus – genius, and again, at just over two minutes, nothing is wasted.
“below surface” is next, and it sounds like it’s title – tremelo guitars in a huge reverb room, and even sam’s voice is partially overwhelmed by the underground cavern feel, the entire song seems to be drenched in this wonderful reverb, giving it an odd other-worldly quality – and this one again, at 1:41, is gone before it gets started.
“wasting my time” returns in it’s “reprise” version, is the next to penultimate track on “fan dance”, which I tend to prefer to the “real” version, this time, no strings, but just a great straight ahead pop band: drums, bass, guitars, and reverse guitar I think – I love this version, it’s very beatles, and I think that this should be the real version, and the string quartet version should be the reprise – but it’s not up to me 🙂
the penultimate track, has a fantastic home made, demo feel about it, and a strange title to go with it, “is that your zebra” is a great little calypso / pop song, with a lovely whispered vocal, which is more about formless “ahhs” than actual lyrics, given this track a wonderfully unfinished feel – almost an afterthought – a great way to end the album.
the album closer, “say what you mean”, is a dark and lonely, sad blues song, slow, dirgelike, but utterly compelling – this reminds me of a song from godley & creme’s “consequences” – entitled “sailor” – which has a similar chord progression and lonely, sad, ethos – here, beautiful, clean, bluesy / jazzy lead guitars grace this very serious piece of blues music – something new for sam phillips, but she sings it like she’s a world-weary 1940’s chanteuse – with grace, passion and sorrow.
what a fantastic album, not a bad song on it, and yet, it remains one of her largely more-unheard works. there is no other record like “fan dance”, which I cannot recommend highly enough – it’s a real beauty.
LOSS AND LOVE
“I was broken when you got me” is the opening line from “how to quit”, the first track from 2004’s “a boot and a shoe” – another low key, acoustic affair, three years on from “fan dance” – and sam is still, thankfully, staying away from the tech excesses of records like “omnipop”, and instead, still sticking to what she does best – sings. so this record is mostly about acoustic guitars and vocals, both of which have come on from “fan dance” – a few more years’ experience, with every album, you can hear sam’s confidence grow, and both her ability on guitar (and piano) – not to mention orchestration, production, engineering… and her voice, just gets better and better each time.
the internet is not entirely forthcoming about the actual chronology of events, but it seems that phillips and burnett divorced in 2004, yet, he stayed to finish the album (“a boot and a shoe”) and they have worked together since the divorce, so while sam’s lyrics do suggest a painful, difficult separation – they still seemed to remain in contact. it seems to be generally acknowledged that “a boot and a shoe” is her record about the divorce, but how much is autobiographical and how much is musical fiction, we will probably never know. sam phillips is a private person, and I think it’s wise that we respect that privacy and not pick at the details of the divorce, except to say, she seemed very “broken” by it – hence a lyric like “I was broken when you got me…” which is heartbreaking on so many levels. I have always tried to judge “a boot and a shoe” as the next sam phillips album, and not colour it as “the break-up album” but that’s not always entirely easy to do.
“all night” is a strange one, with it’s thumping bass, and sharply strummed steel string acoustic guitars, a sort of sordid tale of woe, “all night, all night, all night I’ve been looking for you” being the repeated chorus, a mysterious little pop song – full of desire, “ I’ve been wanting to touch you since we met – you don’t give a girl a chance to forget…” and longing. this piece does take repetition to the very limit (if sam has a downfall, it might be, sometimes, just a little bit, repeating chorus a few too many times in one song…) but it’s still cool, with a great bass part, too.
“I dreamed I stopped dreaming” is a lovely, jazzy tune, with beautiful orchestration, a lovely, lovely piece – maybe my favourite track on the album – another short, enigmatic piece that clocks in at 1:51, but in it’s brief course, it moves you and touches you – and is gone before you know it.
“open the world” follows, another amazing harmony vocal – with the barest of accompaniment, acoustic guitar, bass, drum kit – and the voice from heaven. her voice is so beautiful on this, any imperfections in the song are just overlooked, because of that voice…a great, slow, beautiful, reverberant lead guitar solo takes over briefly, before the incredible harmonies return – and again, before you realise, 2:18 – it’s over.
“red silk #5” is another one that seems almost unfinished, more like a thought than a song, and I love the fragmentary nature of this and some of the other pieces, almost as if it’s not quite a song, but it was too good of an idea not to put forward, so they do a rough sketch, and that gets released – although this piece is probably more finished than I think. sam’s voice is sultry, dark, full of promise, full of mystery – “red silk five….” – talk about enigmatic!
“reflecting light” takes us back to the land of major key, pop, with lovely strummed acoustic guitar chords, a wistful vocal, “I’m reflecting light…” – accordion or something similar, sweeps along behind the mcartney-esque bass guitar and strummed acoustics – “now that I’ve worn out, I’ve worn out the world…” the imagery in this song is just gorgeous. a string quartet enters to take the place of a “lead solo”, playing a lovely middle section, until sam’s vulnerable voice returns, full of hope and joy and fear and a little bit of magic – “stand alone and misunderstood…” – this is a beautiful, wistful, sad, joyous piece of music.
another one with a title that seems more rammstein than phillips, “infiltration” is a face paced shuffle, with string quartet shoehorned on top (somehow) while the drum kit drives the piece forward. sam’s voice is somewhat overwhelmed by the odd instrumentation, but she holds her own – and somehow, this odd arrangement works beautifully, it’s inexplicable – it seems like it shouldn’t work – but it does.
“drawman” is next, another one that sounds more demo than complete, with a great, shuffling, bluesy acoustic guitar feel, and a thin, distant vocal – “hey baby, you’re a drawman…” this piece has a relentless beat, and a lovely 1920s feel to it, a lot of the songs on this record sound like period pieces from a long gone age of acoustic music, and this one has a bit of a shock – an utterly distorted fiddle solo – which is not what I would have expected, but fits in perfectly – it sounds like it came straight off of a 78 rpm record recorded in 1914, and was pasted over this decidedly more modern track – and it reoccurs near the end of the song again.
“I wanted to be alone” follows, a slow waltz with great stereo drum kit (including the best crash cymbal ever recorded – it’s just sublime), bass guitar and acoustic guitars – for this tale of lovers who want to be alone with different partners. a formless, solo-less section forms the ending – and it’s gone.
“love changes everything” is an upbeat, pop song, with down lyrics “we can’t fix what’s broken…” and a great “ba ba ba ba” chorus, just irresistible. another very straightforward acoustic guitar, bass and drums arrangement, as always, simple yet effective – and sam has clearly realised, during the course of recording both her last record, 2001’s “fan dance” and this album, 2004’s “a boot and a shoe” that it’s best to stick with what you are best at – and a straight rendering often is the key to the more successful sam phillips songs.
next comes the simplest arrangement of all – acoustic guitar, voice and later, strings, for “if I could write” – which has a great, simple vocal, and a lovely string arrangement…this could easily have been produced by sir george martin – and it’s a lovely, lovely song. “don’t think I’m coming back…coming back…coming back…”
next up is “hole in my pocket”, a modified waltz as played on acoustic guitar, which then mutates into a really beautiful pop song, the waltz figure starting out each verse, which then moves into time, and sam’s beautiful, clear voice really carries this tune, which is another incredibly short piece of music – gone before it really gets started.
“one day late” – another one of those sam phillips songs where you wish it had just a few fewer repetitive choruses, a lovely enough little song, light hearted, and with a beautiful vocal – but I do feel that the chorus outgrows it’s welcome, after about the fifth repetition, but other than that, I have no complaints, it’s a nice little song.
so as “a boot and a shoe” is the final album in a long string of sam phillips records produced by t-bone burnett, stretching from 2004 all the way back to 1987’s “the turning” when sam was still leslie phillips – a seventeen year collaboration between musician and producer – which is not something you see much of in the music industry.
SAM AS PRODUCER
an “a cappella” beginning, starts out the 2008 album “don’t do anything” – and, with another four years gone by, now divorced from burnett, this is sam’s first self-produced record, and this opening track “no explanations” has an ominous, marching drum beat, distorted guitars, and a creepy, sinuous vocal – a very striking song, and a great way to start the record – with ominous menace.
“can’t come down” follows with it’s fantastic “ I’ve got a great work to do, and I can’t come down” couplet, with sam using that lovely, deep, low pitched voice that she can now conjure up with such ease – acoustic guitar, bass drum, electric guitar – a pretty simple arrangement, but also a bit strange – some odd percussion sounds support more ordinary drum sounds – a non-solo takes the place of a guitar solo – and as with many of the tracks on her previous album, this one clocks in at less than 2:00 – just suddenly stopping at a point you would not expect.
next comes “another song” which starts out with a very distorted sample of a piano song – which then disappears, and turns into an “in the present” piano song, with it’s heartbreaking “did you ever love me” line – this is a really sad little song – and it has some odd time signature changes which are really lovely.
the title track, “don’t do anything” has the best lyrics ever, the amazing “when you’re useless – I love you more – when you don’t do anything” and as a song, it’s tremendous, with glorious strummed guitars, orchestra, and pounding drums, it’s an absolute triumph.
“little plastic life” follows, which is another piano tune, with a great vocal melody that then dissolves into the most amazing harmonised chorus ever, “burned it all, to the ground…burned it all..to the ground” – that is the most shiver inducing, goose bump causing moment, it seems like a jaunty little pop song – and then, slam, “burned it all – to the ground” flies out – and once again, I’m gobsmacked by the pop genius of the mind of sam phillips – it’s brilliant – with it’s telecasting guitars and final piano chord – wow, what a song.
“my career in chemistry” is even better – a rocking little song, with great lyrics, and a really exciting drum part, a drum part that seems to start up over and over again, but never really takes off – the lyrics are so clever, with another of those “ba ba ba ba ba” bits that just rocks – I’m not sure, but I think it might be sam herself playing the drums – and if so, it’s fucking genius. even if not – it’s fucking genius. I really love this amazing song – a show-stopper.
“flowers up” is the beautiful piano ballad, and is a song so beautiful, I don’t know if I have words to describe it, beatlesque, a perfect vocal, a perfect string arrangement, and a song that’s just pure beauty – with a “la la la la la” part that is again fantastic, this is a song you have to hear “diamond eyes spread in silk…” … “day palms and wind machines…” – imagery, vision, sound, beauty – maybe the most beautiful song yet from this remarkable young woman, fading out as the string parts overtake the rest of the song…
“sister rosetta goes before me” – another sam phillips acoustic guitar waltz, precedes the quite shocking “shake it down”, with it’s wonderfully distorted electric guitars and risqué lyric…this record is so personal, so real, that when I first got it in 2008, I really could not stop listening to it for many weeks…an unlikely banjo solo, then back to the five chord wonder that “shake it down” is.
next is “under the night” – more wonderfully distorted electric guitars follow the acoustics, and a low level, low pitched vocal is barely audible behind the wall of guitars, at least until the harmonies come in, when things become more audible. this is a dark arrangement, dire, dreach, and moody – not to be trifled with.
“signal” is another hybrid string quartet/acoustic guitar waltz (which sam seems to really favour on this record – but not necessarily a bad thing!) with a lovely vocal, a really beautiful vocal melody against the acoustic guitars “I gave you who I am…” – wow, that’s fantastic “looking for a signal, underneath my face…” – beautiful string arrangement too.
“watching out of this world” – back to the distorted electric guitars again, a strange, up and down in mood, odd anthem, with a really catchy chorus – if you can make it out underneath the dirtiest electric guitars ever recorded on a pop album – the arrangement threatens to bury the beautiful vocal, but luckily, the vocal wins.
this is a moody record, a very, very personal record, and it finds sam exploring some new techniques, and using a lot more distorted electric guitars on her backing tracks, as well as work with strings and orchestration – but overall, it’s a very, very beautiful record with a lot of naked emotion, and incredibly moving vocals, with very personal arrangements from sam.
it was at this point in time, 2008, that I temporarily lost track of sam’s music, although I continued to play “don’t do anything”, which I picked up on a trip to california in 2008 (sam phillips CDs being a bit rare here in scotland), quite a bit over the past few years, and of course, I am always willing to dip into the back catalogue at any time too…
until a few days ago, when john relph, curator of chalkhills, and many others, casually mentioned that sam phillips “long play” subscription service was about to close down…and so many people responded, that the website actually crashed (it’s being rebuilt now as we speak…seems to be OK now) and I was one of those “better late than never” subscribers, I’d heard about “long play” back in the day, but hadn’t acted – but now, realising I might miss out on three years’ worth of sam’s work – it was a no brainer decision to download the “long play” series.
I downloaded “long play” but I’ve only heard it twice in it’s entirety – and all I can say is…it’s incredible, it’s beautiful, creative, and fascinating, and I am so glad I decided to get it….but, I will have to continue this dissertation on the music of “long play” somewhere down the road, once I’ve had a chance to hear and become familiar with the five EPs, one LP, and several singles that sam released to subscribed fans since 2009 – it was originally meant to run for one year, but ended up existing all the way up to may 1, 2013 – which is good, because that gave those of us who missed it the first time around, a chance to get “caught up” with sam’s music. I for one am the gladdest of all – because while “don’t do anything” is a great, self-produced album, the body of work represented by “long play” is even more musically rewarding – and best of all, there is no record company involvement.
you pay the subscription directly to sam – and she gives you…music. funded by you, written for you, really.
my first (and second) impressions of long play is that it is gobsmackingly beautiful…it is really, really a remarkable body of work, and over the three years it was recorded, sam developed, and matured and grew as a musician in an incredible, but unsurprising way…it’s really so lovely – even after just two “listens”, I can absolutely recommend it so, so highly. a work of incredible beauty.
but I am not surprised 🙂 because, her entire career before her, where she progressed musically not in a linear way, but almost by leaps and bounds, embracing, then rejecting, technology, and always returning to what is key, what is at the heart of the music – her voice, the guitar, the piano – the simple arrangement, the honest song…so I am unsurprised now that the more mature sam phillips, is both master of her craft, and master of her instruments.
in the meantime, at least in this blog, I’ve thoroughly covered the records made between 1987 and 2008, and in part two, of course, I will cover 2009 to the present (whenever that might be) 🙂 I will see you some time in 2014 with the second instalment, I recognise that absorbing and becoming familiar with “long play” is going to take me some considerable time 🙂
starting out with “recollection” by leslie phillips, and eventually growing to a personal collection that contained the majority of her albums under both the leslie phillips and the “sam phillips” names, I’ve really enjoyed being on this particular musical journey…
to me, sam is both a serious songwriter, and a pop genius, with a truly unique and beautiful voice (not to mention great skill at vocal harmonies and vocal arrangements, too) and if you are a fan of quality pop music, then you will probably like some or all of her music, too. her records are always engaging, interesting, covering a broad range of production styles and mixing techniques – and she is without doubt, one of the most unique and interesting voices, with a remarkable catalogue of music, in our time, that I know of.
please give her a listen if you get the chance…you may be pleasantly surprised!
released as “sam phillips” – the “secular phase”
“the indescribable wow” (1988)
“cruel inventions” (1991)
“martinis & bikinis” (1994)
“omnipop (it’s only a flesh wound, lambchop)” (1996)
“zero zero zero” (1998)
“fan dance” (2001)
“a boot and a shoe” (2004)
“don’t do anything” (2008)
EPs and LPS from “long play”:
“hypnotists in paris EP” (2009)
“cold dark night EP” (2009)
“magic for everybody EP” (2010)
“old tin pan EP” (2010)
“days of the one night stands EP” (2010)
“cameras in the sky LP” (2011)
“solid state: songs from the long play LP – compilation” (2011 – compilation of the best songs from across “long play”)
(see the full “long play” chronology below for “long play” singles’ release information)
“long play” chronology (in reverse chronology, most recent first):
October 1, 2011 plastic is forever – alternate version
2011 Single I don’t know why – what it all means – trouble live
August 11, 2011 “solid state: songs from the long play”
February 12, 2011 “cameras in the sky” – full length album
December 8, 2010 single it doesn’t feel like christmas
2010 single go on alone – when you’re down
August 24, 2010 “days of the one night stands EP”
June 18, 2010 “old tin pan EP”
2010 single heart on wheels
February 11, 2010 “magic for everybody EP”
November 24, 2009 “cold dark night EP”
October 1, 2009 “hypnotists in paris EP”
2009 single when you’re down
2009 single I need love – 2009 version
(thanks to john relph for the basis of the above)