[8 September 2011]
What Sam Phillips did with Long Play was open up the possibilities for rethinking the standardization of album production and consumption. Not bound by physicalities, Phillips created a virtual world which mapped out the creative progression of her artistic output. She let the listener in. Instead of keeping her fans at an arms length, as is the unintended outcome of more traditional album releases, she invited them to join in on the fun — to be conscious of her thoughts and ideas, to relish in the visual and audio inputs that inspired her to write such, often times, mesmerizing music. She created a virtual music installation that progressed the possibilities of how artists come to create and release musical products. The physical album is slowly dying and is being replaced by the digital — Sam took this slow death and saw an opportunity to give her fans what they want while simultaneously satiating her creative needs.
In her interview with PopMatters, Phillips indicated that her release of Solid State, a compilation of tracks throughout the Long Play sessions, was not intended for fans who bought into the online musical installation. Instead it was meant for those who were financially unable to join in on the beauty and fun of Sam creating music for over a year and a half. Fair enough. There are two aspects of Solid State that need to be addressed in this review — the music itself and the packaging of the music. First, let’s discuss the music.
Throughout Long Play, the music was occasionally overwhelming and slightly tiresome. It was hard to get onboard with everything Phillips was putting out, even though you respected the fact that she was doing it. She never intended that her listeners engage in all the music all at once, instead preferring to digest each selection of tracks as they were released—a much easier feat. That’s easily what Phillips has done here. She sussed through five EPs and one full-length album to create an easily digestible 13-track album, that is still nonetheless compelling. The music is beautiful. It’s the perfect selection of tracks to give new listeners a slight window into the craftsmanship that is Sam Phillips.
Like Cameras in the Sky, the ten-track album that came from Long Play, this compilation begins with “Tell Me”, a tick-tock track that emphasizes the urgency of needing to adjust and change. It’s a compelling album opener, which is why it remains as the first track on Solid State. Throughout the rest of the compilation, we are treated to approximately one track from each of the five EPs (with Magic For Everybody getting three tracks highlighted), and six tracks from Cameras in the Sky. It becomes apparent very quickly where Sam believes the best of her music over the past year and a half lies, and I’m inclined to agree. The tracks “Broken Circle”, “Happy Medium”, “Tell Me”, “Throw Yourself Away”, When I’m A Camera” and “So Glad You’re Here” are stellar tracks, perfectly illustrating her brilliant songwriting capabilities. Intermingled with the best of the EPs, Phillips elevated the already stellar album, Cameras in the Sky, to an even better meta-album.
This is not to say that Solid State is without flaws. One of the more compelling aspects of the Long Play was the variety of sound that stemmed from each of the EPs. What lacks in this collection of tracks is a clear understanding of that variety. Although the tracks complement each other nicely, they often times obscure the distinction that is much more apparent when listening to each EP individually. These tracks also feel less cohesive then they do in their original formation, where each EP felt like a singular statement. In this collection, those singularities are sacrificed for the sake of maintaining a sonic continuity. It’s a sacrifice to which I cannot easily adhere, but one I’m willing to concede given the necessity of having a simplified and easily accessible product. Separated from their origins, however, this compilation stands alone as one of the best Sam Phillips albums.
Now there is the matter of the packaging. It’s underwhelming and makes this entire project vastly unnecessary. It’s a simple cardboard pocket with a simple cover and tracklisting on the back. That’s it. There are no liner notes, no booklet, no photographs, no information about the Long Play project… nothing. If Long Play was an exercise to seize the benefits of the leading digital trend in music, then a complementary physical package which aggregates the best of that project could have seized a somatic opportunity to bring to life some of the best aspects of that digital experience. It doesn’t. Instead it seems like a marketing ploy to give new listeners a chance to hear a sampling of the music that is available through Long Play, with the hopes that they’ll shell out $52 more for the entire collection of tunes. It’s not a great move on Sam’s part, and despite my adoration of her brilliance, it does not sit well with me. The “solid state” really isn’t a solid state at all. It still feels like an album meant to be consumed predominantly through digital means, because honestly, once you upload these tracks onto your iTunes, and then on your iPod, what use does this cardboard packaging possess? None. It’s disappointing. For fans who bought into the Long Play, there was a missed opportunity to give them something beautiful and tangible for their loyalty, and for those who weren’t able to invest in Long Play, they get a throwaway physical compilation album that gives them no insight (however brief) into the process that Phillips undertook over the past year-and-a-half. It’s a definite misstep.
Ultimately, Solid State: Songs from the Long Play is a well-intended byproduct, horribly executed. It could have been a wonderful bookend to the awe inspiring ride Sam took but instead feels like getting socks and underwear for Christmas when you were really hoping for a new Transformer. As a result to this confliction between the quality of the music and the lack of quality of the packaging, Solid State leaves a bittersweet aftertaste. It’s hard to rate this album in it’s entirety due to this confliction, which is why I offer two separate ratings — one for the music, and one for the packaging.
Music: 8 out of 10
Packaging: 1 out of 10