Sam Phillips is not the Sam Phillips who discovered Elvis. This Sam Phillips used to be a Christian pop singer under the moniker of Leslie Phillips, that is until she decided to split ways with her record company (and seemingly Christian music). She subsequently released more than a handful of brilliant rock/pop non-Christian albums, and her magnificent lyrical quips and beautifully stylized song structures quickly earned her respect as one of the greatest living songwriters. She is the lesser known Aimee Mann, essentially, admired by adorning and aspiring songwriters but forgotten by the mainstream public.
In and around the summer of 2009, Sam decided to go the way of so many Indie artists and make her music available digitally through her website, thus launching the Long Play project. For a hefty sum of $50, listeners received 5 EPs, containing anywhere from six to eight songs each, a handful of bonus tracks, access to various online-only bonus content, and a full-length album entitled Cameras In the Sky. It’s a lot of music, some of it particularly amazing, some of it not so much. Despite Ms. Phillips’ obvious songwriting talents, a key aspect to the brilliance of her recorded work, one that most likely went unnoticed until her split with husband/producer T-Bone Burnett, was the production. Previous full-length efforts such as Martinis and Bikinis, A Boot and a Shoe, and my personal favourite, The Fan Dance, relied heavily on a nuanced production technique placing Sam’s strongest assets front and center whilst understating the less immediately brilliant songs.
During production of A Boot and A Shoe, Sam and T-Bone split, leaving Sam without a husband or a producer. Don’t Do Anything was the resulting effort of Sam on her own, producing her own tracks for the first time in her career, which spans more than three decades. It was a boring mess. Overwrought with droning electric guitars and monotony. When it was announced that Sam Phillips would be embarking on this Long Play project, being the loyal fan that I am, I jumped at the opportunity and crossed my fingers that her musical appeal did not solely rest on the magnificent production of her ex-husband. My concerns were half-accurate. The first EP released was called Hypnotists in Paris and featured nothing more than a Section Quartet. A refreshing and welcome change from the drone of Don’t Do Anything.
Over the course of the next year or so Phillips, released four more EPs, each featuring a bonus track or two. EPs Cold Dark Night (a collection of Christmas-themed tunes), Magic for Everybody, Old Tin Pan, and finally, Days of the One Night Stand. The final tally is 32 songs — a lot to process from a single artist. The Long Play project also features an amazingly stylized website catering to everything imaginable a fan may desire from his/her favourite artist — blogs, podcasts, silent movies, a scrapbook of clustered art from 50s and 60s magazines, drum-fills of the week, and photos updated constantly. It was definitely a zealous project on Phillips’ part, who also incorporated silence as part of the project, and although some of the music failed to resonate, the sheer artistry of this monumentally talented musician shines through on each and every aspect of the project.
The project ended with the full-length digital-only release Cameras in the Sky. Apparently Ms. Phillips intentions from the beginning was to save the best tracks for last. The production here is more agile, striking the listener with a variety imbricated and intricate sound, thus effectively debunking my concern that her appeal rested in T-Bone’s production. The best track “Broken Circle”, an anthem of tough love, stands as one of Sam’s best tracks since “Reflecting Light” from her 2004 release A Boot and a Shoe. She definitely left this year-and-a-half long project with a bang, leading us by the hand through some questionable places before ending at the vast ocean of her unique brilliance. Even though the Long Play was a trek even for the most die-hard fan, occasionally rewarding and often overwhelming, Cameras in the Sky is the welcome reward for continued loyalty to one of the best songwriters we’ve seen from this side of the world.
$50 well spent.
Long Play rating: 6 out of 10
Cameras in the Sky rating: 8 out of 10