Overlooked & Under Appreciated: Master Works by Oft-Overlooked Artists – Sam Phillips

In today’s edition of this as-yet-non-existent series – this being the first in the series (ahhhh – now it exists)  – we are looking at 2001’s “Fan Dance” by Sam Phillips.

 

I could easily see myself writing any number of blogs with this title – and it may well transpire that over the coming time, I do just that, because I am listening more, and I am listening more often – and I am going back and listening to records that I loved ten, twenty, thirty years ago – and finding that in some cases, they are so much better than even I thought – hindsight, and the passage of time, reveals them to be absolute works of genius.  Which more often than not, comes as quite a surprise to me – OK, I knew it was good…but I had NO IDEA it was that good….

 

Maybe at the time I knew that it was something very special – or thought that – or maybe not – obviously, when music is new, you form an impression of it – you listen to it – maybe a little, maybe a lot, maybe obsessively – then time passes, you listen to other music – but eventually, you find yourself coming back to certain artists, to certain albums, to certain songs – to certain lyrics – to works of what are now, with the benefit of hindsight – clearly, far beyond other contemporary works by other artists – and these realisations just keep hitting you and hitting you and hitting you – oh my God, you wonder, how on EARTH did I NOT SEE (or more accurately, how on EARTH did I NOT HEAR) that this record is an absolute impossible musical miracle – like nothing before and like nothing since.

You can’t easily or readily see that or hear that when a record is new – and sure, some records instantly reveal themselves as having qualities that we love, that we know in time will just be more and more appreciated – but it’s still difficult – the work is NEW.

But this strange thing that human beings experience – the passage of time – well, for me at least, the passage of time changes my perception of music – and sometimes the changes are slow, gradual, and orderly, but in other instances – the new or changed perception LEAPS out at you and it’s almost a shock – here is a record I’ve heard dozens of times – maybe hundreds of times – that I’ve always loved, respected – but today, today, because of “the passage of time” – today that record is revealed in an entirely new light.

You see and hear it for what it actually is – and you probably unconsciously “knew” all along that it was significant or important or meaningful or all of the above – but it takes that additional trigger – time passing – usually, a LOT OF TIME passing…to bring the sudden realisation – that “oh my God, this is genius” moment – a moment that could be 30, 40 years in the making.

 

This morning, I sat quietly, doing absolutely nothing else, and listened to Sam Phillips’ mostly acoustic offering from 2001, “Fan Dance” – which, at the time, I liked it very much, it is clearly one of her best and most enduring works and it stands up really well now, some 18 years later – really, really well – it sounds like it could have been made yesterday – and in fact,  just after I listened to the entire “Fan Dance” album, I then put on a somewhat later work – 2013’s “Push Any Button” and while the music has changed – the messages – and the feeling of hope I get from the lyrics – remains – these are songs of hope.

 

A SLIGHT DIGRESSION – TRENDS IN THE MUSIC INDUSTRY

Some artists who don’t have really sweet worldwide distribution deals, have no choice but to operate at the periphery of the “music industry” – which actually, I think is the better  place to be – because of the well-documented and really oppressive ways that companies control and manipulate their artists – time and time again we hear the stories of how artists were robbed of their royalties, given the worst deals imaginable, and the view over time of “record companies” and the “recording industry” has naturally, due to these depressing and oppressive facts, developed as a very negative view indeed – my personal view of record companies has undergone a massive transformation over the past 40 years – and my view now is that anyone who can operate OUTSIDE of the confines of the “music industry” – is the better for it.  Myself included.

 

When I was 16 – I wanted a record deal. By the time I was 25, 30 – I never ever wanted a record deal – because I saw how these “deals” negatively affected the musicians I loved and even some that are friends or acquaintances – it was heart-breaking to see what happened to them because of their “record deal” – but it was also a cautionary tale for me and for us all – be careful – be very careful – what you wish for.  An all-expenses paid trip to – being enslaved, being used or abused – and your music denigrated to the point of being a product and a product only – and when your music becomes a “product” – you know that trouble is with you.

 

A very large cross section of extremely talented and capable musicians have been burned, and burned again, by the music industry – and the horror stories go on and on, from the earliest exploitation of artists being given a few pennies for their work, while music industry “executives” and management skim 98 percent “off the top” and put it straight into their own pockets…to the lapses in good judgement and other “business practices” perpetrated by the music industry onto both artists and the record-buying public, too – just too many bad stories that I really am not sure I want to hear too many more of – we know what happened – so now – how do we move beyond that into a better future for musicians and for music lovers?  How does it work, now?

So – musicians made music in good faith, trusted their “record label” to take care of them, to promote their music – and to pay them fairly and treat them fairly – and in practice – that happened so rarely, that everyone just assumed the worst – and rightfully so – about the behaviour of the “greedy leaders” of the “music industry” – sure, there were always a few exceptions who really cared about music – but not many.

Meanwhile – the good faith of musicians, who trusted their record labels. …was rewarded with exploitation, outright theft – and the bad, bad faith of record company and music industry executives – who, sadly, it turns out, are as uncaring about music as many oil companies are uncaring about the environment – it just demonstrates one of mankind’s ugliest traits – greed, greed, greed – and more greed, and it becomes all about taking and taking and taking – and never about giving anything back or supporting the musician who creates this “income” in the first place.

 

It’s no wonder then, that so many musicians and artists have taken back their music and their art – sometimes at huge personal expense – being forced to pay to recover the rights to their own musical creations – and then re-presenting them to their fans directly, via direct-to-artist purchase websites and online stores.

I applaud this approach – I feel much, MUCH happier, giving £40.00 pounds directly to the artist who created the work – making sure they get PAID for the work they have done – I feel very uncomfortable and very unhappy when I realise how much of the money I spent buying records, cassettes and CDs over this past half a century – I regret how much of that money went straight into the greedy pockets of executives who created nothing, and who exploited, used and harmed the musicians who music they stole.

OK – the above is probably really a separate topic for a separate blog – but much is known about this now, thanks to the stories told by the artists themselves – who basically come directly to the fans and say “look – I am not on a record label anymore.  You used to buy my records from the record company – but now, I am making my own records without a label – or, on my own personal label – and I want to deal DIRECTLY with you.  I produce a CD of music, a DVD of a concert, or other media that you want to hear and see – and instead of giving 90+ percent to a record company, and a few pennies to me (if I am lucky) – you can now pay me directly for the CD or DVD that I created for you to enjoy”.  This makes ME feel very, very happy indeed.

It’s sad the reasons for it – as alluded to above – but in the end, it’s such a good, good thing – because it means I can SUPPORT the artists I love, by putting my money into THEIR pockets (so they can make more records, create more art – share more of their art with us) for the first time – I know where my money is going – NOT into a black hole or the pockets of a greedy executive who cares nothing for music or the artists that I really love, and whose music means very much indeed to me.

So that all being said – nowadays, many artists who used to be wholly captured by and in thrall to  and who were horribly used by the music industry – have freed themselves from that corporate grip, and now are dealing directly with the fans – which is probably, the way it should have been all along!

 

And it’s not any particular type of artist – I like a fairly diverse array of music, from pop to the heaviest prog metal and everything in between – and seeing the creative ways in which these very creative people have walked away from the traditional models and found other ways and better ways to share their art with their fans – it’s an amazing and remarkable phenomena – and it’s odd to think that it came out of oppression, out of being under the thumb of a record company, it’s due to being robbed and used by purveyors of corporate greed – and the artists have totally turned this around – and made it be about the ART again – the music, the songs, the films, the performances – the things that made them start out to become a musician in the first place. We are back to the source, to the root – to the music.

The approaches to rebuilding and reconnecting to their audiences are as varied as the artists who have freed themselves – on the one hand, you have highly organised individuals like Robert Fripp – whose highest level projects such as King Crimson, operated on the world stage, through traditional record company and music industry practices – with all of the infrastructure and the bad deals that came with it – and after being betrayed by his long term business partners – Fripp took the time to think this through, and instead of just going to a “sell direct to the fans platform” – as many, many other excellent artists have done – he decided to create his own label, DGM which might be easily called the “world’s first ethical record company”.  They don’t have written contracts – they work on the honour systems – a handshake is the “contract” and honesty and fairness are the terms.

DGM supports much more than just Robert Fripp and his side projects, so the creation of DGM and the fact that DGM could then become “home” to other artists – that’s a brilliant accidental by-product of the very negative impetus that drove Fripp to create DGM in the first place.  So now – instead of only having “traditional” record companies to deal with – musicians and artists can make an ethical choice, and go to a unique company like DGM and find success – and a direct connection to their fan base – so it is win-win-win in that scenario.

Other artists – I am thinking now about the remarkable cottage industry put together by singer / songwriter Sam Phillips – the actual subject of this blog believe it or not! – who has never been comfortable with the music industry – and once the oppression of regular record labels became too much – she left, and set up her own website and started selling directly to her fans via that website.

Initially, she did this via a subscription service called “The Long Play” which I wrote about in some detail in this blog here.

The positive response to “The Long Play” was so overwhelming, personally I think it is fantastic to be able to deal directly with the artist in these cases, and the way Phillips has developed her media and marketing is honest, straightforward and admirable indeed – and I feel happy, because the money I spend to buy her records – goes back into her industry, into her team – which will only bring more amazing records, DVDs and downloads – it’s now a very positive, good circle of fair commerce – rather than a negative record industry style experience.

 

AND SEVERAL DAYS LATER I AM MAGICALLY BACK ON TOPIC…DIGRESSION ENDS

As is my way, I have initially at least, really diverted away from today’s topic with my little discourse on independence from record companies – but that is the background from which today’s actual topic emerges – at last.

In recent years, with the emergence of artist-run and artists-selling-direct-to-fans sites, often that artist will re-acquire the rights to their entire catalogue (where possible) which means it’s easy enough nowadays, to go to www.samphillips.com and to purchase a CD or a download of a thirty year old record.  I know that Bill Nelson and other artists who previously had very, very complex and scattershot distribution – has made a real effort to bring back all of the earliest parts of his catalogue so his entire life in music can be viewed and heard and acquired in one place – his own website – and I am always very happy when I read that artists have managed to re-acquire lost catalogue items – and can hopefully, built out a full catalogue that represents the entire body of their entire life as a musician.

 

In this particular case, I already had the record I am going to discuss here, which is 2001’s “Fan Dance” by Sam Phillips but it was actually the fact of me going to purchase more recent works by Sam (in particular, 2018’s “World On Sticks” which I had just missed last year due to circumstances beyond my control; and even more spectacular – the audio and video versions of “Live At Largo” – fantastic recent releases from Sam)  – trying to complete my collection, which in fact goes way, WAY back to the very earliest days – in acquiring more recent records – it drew my attention back to some of her earlier works – so I have been  listening to a LOT of Sam Phillips lately, both modern and earlier works – and it’s been an absolutely incredibly enjoyable and joyous experience.

These songs – whether they be from last year or thirty years ago – these songs have something in them that is immensely attractive to me – and I think that just now, in 2019 – in going back and listening to a few key releases, that I have possibly figured out what it is that appeals to me with regards to the music of Sam Phillips – and it can be summed up into one very important word:

 

Hope.

 

Whether I am listening to “Love Is Not Lost” from “Recollection” (in that instance, going really, really far back into the mists of time) or the latest studio and live tracks just downloaded from www.samphillips.com – there is one common theme in this music – and it is hope.

I believe that subconsciously at least – I knew that already – and I have known it for a long time.  But it took that curious thing I alluded to earlier – the passage of time – to suddenly and very, very clearly show me that it’s HOPE that drives this artist forward – hope for something better, something beyond the ordinary – something beyond the hurt and heartbreak of life.

Like many singer / songwriters – Sam does write about pain – emotional pain – the pain of just existing in a baffling and inexplicable world – and that is one thing – but if you really listen, and if you then allow the passage of time to sink in – and then really listen again – you will hear it.

You will feel it and know it – that no matter how sad or depressing those real-life stories can sometimes get – in the uplifting way that Sam writes, and sings, and harmonises (oh my dear God, those harmonies!) and in the uplifting way that Sam presents her lyrics – you can clearly see and hear the hope in her heart – and for me, that helps me to realise that yes – there is hope – when I struggle – and I think that this knowledge is such a powerful thing.

Sam Phillips is a serious musician, who writes serious songs about many, many topics – some, the more expected or ordinary (for lack of a better word – there is nothing ordinary about any of Sam’s songs really!) “singer-songwriter” fare – i.e. love songs, songs of loss, songs of longing, wistful songs, and so on – but she also writes a lot of other types of songs – some of them, very, very dark indeed (I am thinking of “The Black Sky” now, from the remarkable “Martinis And Bikinis” album from 1994 – which, by the way, features a few tracks with Colin Moulding of XTC on bass guitar – don’t miss that one!) – songs about mankind’s ability to destroy and fuck up the world while we sit and watch in horror – so her writing runs a real gamut from being all about love to the most biting social commentary possible – but no matter what the song is about, for me, somewhere  in there, in some turn of phrase or lyrical invention – there is HOPE.  Or possibly, a warning that a lot of bad things are happening, and we NEED some hope.

Over the past 20, 30 years or more, there has been a LOT of music produced, by a lot of artists – that holds little or no hope whatsoever.  It’s all the darkest, most real, most terrifyingly true stuff – it’s real, it is happening:  and musicians and artists are looking at events and reporting them through their art – and it’s just terrifying because it’s TRUE.

And – in that massive outpouring of musical truth – there is a lot of great music, OK – it is true that lyrically some artists and some bands almost seem  to espouse or prefer a “THERE IS NO HOPE” kind of ethos within their music – and because that is also usually the absolute truth – it does appeal , it is of interest and I love a lot of that music – probably because it DOES tell the unvarnished truth – and I will always prefer hard, honest music over something less real…

However – within the lyrics that Sam Phillips writes – and it’s not often overt at all – I just get an intense feeling of hope from what she is saying.  A sense of hope…and this is the really important point here – that I do NOT get from many, even from most, artists no matter how good or how much I might really love their music – other artists rarely make me feel the way listening to the music of Sam Phillips makes me feel.

It took me a long time to realise that, and even longer to articulate it (until just now, in actual fact).

I think that the human being’s enjoyment of music is an incredibly complex, multi-faceted thing that it is not easy to understand, describe or understand easily.  For me, every piece of music has components that I listen to in different ways, for different reasons – there is no single standard “way” of listening because often, a certain element or elements leap out at me and attract me where for another listener – those same elements hold nothing for them, they do not move them or affect them as they affect me.  And there is nothing wrong with this – just as each human being is a unique individual, I think that each listener has his or her own “way” of listening to any particular song, album or artist – and the perception of each song is going to be different each time, for each listener – that’s what makes listening to music such a unique and such a very “personal” thing – because the same song – can have a huge array of very different effects on each different listener.

Some listeners will love a song because of the vocal.  Or the words.  Or the bass guitar.  Or the drum sound.  Or the way that one splash cymbal hits just before the vocal chorus begins…

Other listeners will find other components that stand out or appeal to them – and you end up with thousands and thousands of different yet all valid “reasons” why we like a song.

 

But beyond that personal interpretation – sometimes, there are globally available energies that we could ALL tap into if we were aware they are present.

I think that the quality of “HOPE” which is not tied directly to just one song or one lyric or one bass note or one piano chord – but in fact, this quality seems to exist ALMOST independently of the song itself (unlikely as that seems and as counter-intuitive as that seems) I think that the feeling of hope that I get comes from some underlying mechanism – something about the lyrics, the way she has written each lyric – and if you just judged them on the surface – you might not “get” the feeling of hope.

So while I am sure it (the hope) is mostly contained in the lyrics – I am also quite sure that (the hope) is NOT in the lyrics or rather, not in the lyrics alone.

 

 

Somehow – and this is the feeling I’m getting these past couple of days in revisiting the “Fan Dance” album of 2001 so closely – somehow it’s not just in the lyrics, but the hope I am now seeing, now hearing now FEELING properly and completely for the first time since 2001 when this record appeared – that hope is tied to the ENTIRETY of the performance.  I will try to say what I mean here:

It is in the warmth of the tone of Sam’s voice as she sings the melody

It is in the amazing blending of voices that occurs when Sam harmonises with herself

It’s also in the unique and lovely background vocals and harmonies which seem straightforward on the surface, but can be often quite sophisticated and complex – as one example, the song “Love Is Everywhere I Go” contains a lead vocal, a second, overlapping vocal “response” (“looking through you…”) and background vocals – and somehow – this is all woven into an incredible single vocal “tapestry” if you will – along with, an astonishing transition from the “bridge” back to the chorus – which I don’t really even understand how she DID that – but it’s amazing.

The vocal layering and complexity – with an ultimately very simple sounding and straightforward output as “the vocal” – of a track like this – it also contains a lot of this hope I am now detecting – somehow – woven into this elaborate and beautiful tapestry of interwoven voices.

 

It’s also in the CARE that is shown in the playing – in the deliberate, slow, precise strokes of the acoustic rhythm guitar – which is then mirrored in perfection by the deliberate, slow drum beats and then  to the details of that following percussion – when that crash or splash cymbals DOES hit just before the chorus begins again – the band is so tight, so together as to be performing as if one body – those drum parts mirror those Sam Phillips rhythm guitars which mirror the bass and atop which sits the Magic Vocal Tapestry Full Of Hope – it’s in THERE.

The HOPE I am hearing and feeling and experiencing now, that I did perhaps feel in a lesser, more clouded way back in the day – it’s so much a part of each and every song on each and every Sam Phillips record – it’s definitely there – but as you can see, articulating “where” it is within a particular song is very, very difficult, if not impossible!

 

So I know the hope is very real, I can feel it absolutely – but I don’t exactly (or even inexactly) know where it is “coming from” in any given song, or on any given album – but – one thing I do know –  it that it is definitely there – and it’s my hope – that if you like the music of Sam Phillips – it would be my hope that you have heard this feeling of hope coming through her music,  too.

 

For me, this quality sets Sam apart from many other musicians – where I don’t feel that hope in others’ music – I just don’t feel anything even akin to hope in a lot of modern music.  And maybe it’s there too, in the music of those other artists – but it’s harder to see.  Or will take longer to see.  The “passage of time” – that’s a variable that is not in my control – or anyone’s control – and in this case, a certain amount of “a passage of time” has allowed me to see, hear and experience something within this music that I already loved – that I had never really seen, heard or experienced until I listened again to the “Fan Dance” album yesterday and again, today.

I am very glad that this happened, because we can all always use a little more hope – and, I’m also happy to report, that it doesn’t feel like just a little hope – often with Sam’s songs and Sam’s records –  it feels like a great big, joyous, hopeful hope – and that has made me feel very happy indeed.  Now when I hear these songs – I am given an extra gift, I am uplifted – and you don’t get that every day.

 

What a remarkable experience this has been – and it’s all down to perception, the passage of time, and suddenly recognising something important – something very important – that was actually there all along but I just did not realise it.

It’s all about the hope.

 

Note:  for the purposes of this blog I listened to the “Fan Dance” CD a few times, but in terms of direct inspiration and for me, having the most readable, easiest to see, hear and feel – in terms of the hope theme I am talking about – I relied upon these particular tunes, with their particular lyrics – and it is upon these particular tracks that I formed the opinions expressed in this blog – and that is not to discount any of the songs NOT named – the entire album is a brilliant expression of not just hope, but of a visionary singer songwriter who writes with a rare, rare honest and forthrightness that frankly, I think – the world could use a lot more of.

 

My specific, particular song by song inspirations then – from the “Fan Dance” record – for this article – were:

 

Edge Of The World

Five Colors

Wasting My Time

Taking Pictures

Love Is Everywhere I Go

 

Also useful is this discography of Sam’s work

I could cite any number of Sam’s lyrics (or songs or albums) to try and demonstrate that underlying hope – which perhaps, on the surface – when you just read it – flat, on a page – (as below)  – maybe the sense of hope doesn’t come through as strongly – but if you put on the record, and listen – I think that then – I believe then you will hear it, you will feel it – and the lyrics themselves will take on a new meaning  that comes from your deeper understanding of the song as a whole.

The lyrics alone then, are not responsible for the perceived sense of hope – it’s actually the entire construct of the song – the music,  the instruments, the rhythm, the harmonies – the singing, the phrasing – the feel – many intangible properties making up a whole musical experience that in these cases – also house the secret weapon of Hope – real perceptible hope – it’s there for all to experience – and I am so, so glad that I took the time to go back and really listen to these songs… because that allowed me to have this extra experience that I am not sure all listeners of “Fan Dance” have yet had.

 

It would then be my hope that what I have written, might help unlock that same hope for any or all of you wanting to experience more than just “listening to a few songs” – for me, this new hope has huge value – underlying or not, visible or not – I am so glad it’s there – and I am so glad I happened across it in my music listening experience.

 

“There is no end to the good”.  Just think about that one crucial line – which appears right at the start of the song – bringing so much positivity, so much real hope – there is NO END to the good.  It is forever – it is always there – it is always available – I think that is part of what Sam is telling us.  A big part of it – have hope, there is hope, I know there is hope – so – you my patient audience – please have hope too.

 

________________________________________________________

 

Love Is Everywhere I Go

Sam Phillips – 2001

 

 

Going down this road again
I finally know
There is no end to the good

Love is everywhere I go
Looking through you
Love is everywhere I go
Looking through you
Love is everywhere I go
Looking through you

Burning light inside my dreams
I wake up in the dark
The light is outside my door

Love is everywhere I go
Looking through you
Love is everywhere I go
Looking through you
Love is everywhere I go
Looking through you

Chasing every fragment I see
Looking through you
Love is looking for me
Breaking open the clouds
I’m not stranded in time

Love is everywhere I go
Looking through you
Love is everywhere I go
Looking through you
Love is everywhere I go
Looking through you

 

________________________________________________________

 

 

“There is no end to the good”.

 

 

Dave Stafford

September 1, 2019

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