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(Nonesuch 79625 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/10/2001)
The name Sam Phillips for those of a certain generation, means the legendary record producer and founder of Sun Records in Memphis. But there is a Sam Phillips who is a Grammy-nominated West-Coast singer-songwriter with a surprisingly lengthy career, and who has just released her intriguing new fifth pop CD called Fan Dance.
Born Leslie Phillips in Los Angeles, she grew up in Glendale, California, in the late 1960s and took up piano at an early age. Showing artistic abilities in her youth, she was encouraged with dance lessons, wrote poetry and was singing before audiences at a fairly young age. She began songwriting while still in her teens. The numerous changes in everything from music to values that took place as she was coming of age, led her, like many others, to seek out new directions, and for Ms. Phillips, it was an attraction to evangelical Christianity. Thus she began her recording career as a religious artist.
But by the late 1980s, she turned to secular music and assumed her childhood nickname Sam as a stage name to distinguish her new career from her old. It was only after adopting the name that she discovered that it was the same as that of the record producer who first recorded Elvis Presley. The former Leslie Phillips also began working with the eclectic record producer T Bone Burnett, who would become her husband. And indeed, except for the outside of her new CD, she is listed throughout the credits as "Sam Burnett."
Her debut release The Indescribable Wow, released in 1988, was an attractive and worthwhile blend of pop elements with musical eclecticism. She has been releasing T-Bone-Burnett-produced new recordings roughly every three years, though it has been five years since her last studio effort Omnipop.
Hew new release marks a departure from the more elaborately-produced sound of Omnipop. Fan Dance has a decidedly more intimate, sometimes even stark sound, reminiscent of some of T Bone Burnett's other production clients like Gillian Welch, who appears on this CD. Often there are just two or three musicians on a track, and the music can assume a dark quality reminiscent of film noir. The songs on this short album are also interesting, ranging from oblique love songs, to some mildly unsettling vignettes, including one about a near-death experience. There is a surprising amount of what could be called cabaret influence, along the lines of the melancholy, slightly decadent sounding music of pre-World War II Germany. But Ms. Phillips also shows her long-time influence from 1960s artists like the Beatles. The instrumentation is mostly acoustic, but ranges from a series of cellos to an odd collection of tape loops. Throughout, the sound is quite intimate and the way the album is mixed adds to its dark quality.
The backing musicians are mostly people who have worked with her for years, including her husband Burnett, guitarist Marc Ribot, also known for his work with Tom Waits, and arranger Van Dyke Parks. New to his CD are drummer/percussionist Carla Azar, and another of Burnett's production clients Gillian Welch, who does some guitar and vocal harmonies. Ms. Phillips' songs can range from whimsical to romantic to nearly inscrutable, with some songs unusually short at under two minutes. The musical setting gives even the more upbeat songs an oddly somber quality. Her vocals, recorded without any reverberation and mostly as first takes, remain appealing.
The opening track, the title song Fan Dance epitomizes the somewhat quirky sound of the CD. The lyrics have a vaguely Eastern quality, while the musical setting sometimes hints at old-time 78 rpm records. The result is intriguing. <<>>
Perhaps the most unusual song is the Edge of the World, which musically conjures up the Beatles in one of their offbeat modes. The lyrics seem to tell the story of someone who was seemingly on her deathbed after an accident, hearing preparations being made for dealing with the death, only to make a recovery. <<>>
One of what I suppose could be called the short vignette songs is Taking Pictures, which with its Beatles-influenced musical setting, basically says that things are not what they used to be. <<>>
Gillian Welch makes the first of her appearances on the song Five Colors, whose rather upbeat musical setting contrasts with its bittersweet lyrics. <<>>
Wasting My Time is one of Fan Dance's most memorable tracks, with the accompaniment entirely provided by the cellos arranged by Van Dyke Parks and all played by Martin Tillman. <<>>
One the other hand, one of the more curious-sounding pieces is Soul Eclipse, whose back-porch style acoustic guitar lines are supplemented by an odd collection of sound loops and distorted guitars. The lyrics are rather abstruse as well. <<>>
Guitarist Marc Ribot's work with Tom Waits is apparent on the track called Incinerator, which combines a kind of mutant cabaret influence with the unusual sonic ingredients. It all seems to fit well with Ms. Phillips' impressionistic lyrics. <<>>
Also showing Ms. Phillips' Beatles influence is Love Is Everywhere I Go, perhaps the most upbeat set of lyrics on this CD that is usually set in grayer moods. <<>>
The album concludes with a piece that epitomizes the "film noir" quality that Ms. Phillips acknowledges influenced her in the making of Fan Dance. Say What You Mean sounds like an old torch song given a something of a twist though the album's eclectic musical setting. <<>>
Fan Dance marks a departure from Sam Phillips' previous, generally more upbeat work. The new CD has a decidedly darker musical quality, even when the lyrics are more positive. The result is an intriguing CD that can easily grow on one. Ms. Phillips is in excellent form, and the musical backing along with the production by her husband T Bone Burnett brings together some unexpected combinations of sounds, sometimes simultaneously hinting at Beatles-era pop, old cabaret music from the 1930s, and film noir or the novels of Raymond Chandler. There's clearly an experimental sound to the album, and the experiments are not always entirely successful, but the honest, often very informal quality of the music makes up for any excessive quirkiness.
It's hard to give this CD a grade for sound quality. There was a lot of manipulation of sound that significantly reduced fidelity, including excessive compression of the vocals and some instruments, and distorted tape loops, but sometimes the effect can work. Still, Burnett and company could have taken better care to ensure sound quality, especially with things like mixing some songs entirely to mono, with no stereo effect. So we'll give the CD about a C+.
As Leslie Sam Phillips Burnett was growing up, artists like the Beatles would release two or three albums a year. Of course, artists record much less frequently now. How much an effect the five year wait since Ms. Phillips last release will have on her career remains to be seen. But it has given her time to come up with an interesting new approach. Though a brief 33 minutes in length, Fan Dance makes for beguiling listening.
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