[4 June 2008]
Sam Phillips doesn’t seem to be a part of her music as much as she seems apart from it. Her vocals are distant and distinct from the instrumentation. They follow different melodies, rhythms, and tempos. One can hear every word. Feel every breath. But there is something peculiar always happening
“Strange things are happening everyday / I hear the music up above my head”, she sings and that seems to be true of her own songs. She produced the record (her first self-production, the previous eight were done by her ex-husband T-Bone Burnett) and is responsible for how the sounds mesh. Her voice comes from somewhere other than where the rest of the music originates, which gives her songs mysterious properties. Lyrically, she takes on various personae that seem to be intimate but at the same time the words hide the real person inside.
It’s like hearing a private conversation behind a closed door, without knowing who one is listening to. One hears the details of a relationship, the sense of deep feelings and such, but one can’t identify the individuals involved. We don’t know any more about Phillips at the end of the record than we did at the beginning. There’s a sense that revelation will be at hand, but it never comes.
The sense of ambiguity is also due to the unusual composition of her band, a quasi-chamber string orchestra/pop combo comprised of Eric Gorfain on acoustic and electric violin, piano, banjo, electric mandolin, and electric and baritone guitar; violist Leah Katz; cellist Richard Dodd; bassists Paul Bryan and Jennifer Condos; drummer Jay Bellerose; and pump organist Patrick Warren. Phillips herself not only sings but plays piano, electric and acoustic guitar. The instruments turn familiar notes and structures into carnivalesque figures, fading in and out at odd moments.
“I’d rather be alone than with someone who doesn’t know ... secrets”, Phillips intones with a deliberate pause. She relishes the inscrutability the material provides. This is song noir, whose low-key, chiaroscuro-style shadings of musical effects heighten the psychological reality. The detective here doesn’t try to explain. She’s on the hunt for the answers herself. Her vocals are the equivalent of whistling in the dark.
Phillips understands this. The album’s title comes from a song that celebrates not doing or thinking anything, just being. This paradox, that nothing is the equivalent of everything, that zero equals infinity, is a conceit that she endorses but can’t really commit to. She won’t let the record stand still. Every time musical precision is reached in terms of harmony or completion or quietude, Phillips can’t help but dismantle it with a cracked abandonment. As a producer, she’s not able to let it be.
“Perfect was a nice disguise”, she sings. Phillips realizes that music, like life, is found in the flaws. She creates sonic sandcastles with strings and percussion and croons above it, but her inner eye is open and sees the waves crashing to the shore. She welcomes the pounding surf. Its ebb and flow match the sound of a beating heart. And everything living is doomed to age, decay and die. That only makes everything more precious. Phillips might preach “Don’t Do Anything”, but the constant flux of her music reveals that she knows better.