Welcome back Sam; we’ve missed you. After a five-year hiatus, Sam Phillips returns to form with the very intimate Fan Dance, a quality collection of adult pop that allows her sexy voice to deliver cryptically introspective musings in a finely focused, mostly acoustic scheme. Smartly, Phillips and husband/producer T-Bone Burnett have assembled performances of quiet assurance, surrounded by a small ensemble of talented friends. Marc Ribot lets his guitar mastery lead Phillips’ own guitar work, while Gillian Welch plays bass and provides backup vocals. Lending a hand with arrangements and harpsichord is Van Dyke Parks, while Carla Azar and Jim Keltner round out the cast on percussion.
I’m not exactly sure how I first stumbled onto the music of Sam Phillips. I believe the track “Where the Colors Don’t Go” (off Cruel Inventions) was included in some compilation CD packaged along with an issue of Rolling Stone. It caught my ear immediately with its Beatles-influenced craftsmanship. By the time I’d purchased her Martinis and Bikinis, all my suspicions were more than confirmed. Indescribable wow, indeed—this was some kind of special singer/songwriter talent. She had the whole package: a great voice, a wry wit to her intelligent lyrics, and tunes that found their way into your very essence. I sang her praises to anyone who would listen.
However, by nature Ms. Phillips is musically amorphous, an evolving creature who rarely stays in one place. From the time she was 14, she’s been finding new and interesting ways to translate her thoughts into music. By age 22, she (as Leslie Phillips) was releasing her first album Beyond Saturday Night, en route to a successful career as a young rebellious contemporary Christian/Gospel/Rock idol. Five years and four albums later, she denounced her label and the limiting right-wing ideology of the Christian rock scene. Changing her identity (“Sam” was a childhood nickname) and leaving her previous music career behind, she teamed up with producer Henry “T-Bone” Burnett and embarked on a new pop-oriented career (she married him before her next album).
Long story short, her pop career flourished even as the sounds and lyrics grew more mature and progressive. With each new effort, Phillips moved ahead into new terrain, with critical acclaim accompanying her. Burnett was achieving success of his own as a producer (Elvis Costello, Counting Crows). Martinis and Bikinis got nominated for a Grammy. Her Germanic looks got Sam cast as Katya, Jeremy Irons’ terrorist femme fatale in the movie Die Hard with a Vengeance. The world was her oyster.
Then, in 1996 Phillips and Burnett released Omnipop (It’s Only a Flesh Wound, Lambchop) and the progress halted some. The CD, which branched out into a type of “lounge pop” music, was heavily produced and a tad eclectic. It sold only one quarter as many units as her previous CD and was considered a commercial failure. For Phillips it wasn’t just the sales numbers that upset her, it was how poorly the music was being distributed to a potential listening audience. So after this next round of four CDs, Sam Phillips again decided it was time for a change. She felt drained, artistically and emotionally. Needing time to attend to her personal life, she retired from music.
In her new life, she decided to concentrate on a different type of collaboration with Burnett—a daughter named Simone. But music is her life, and in the almost five intervening years, whilst raising her daughter, she began to write new material for what would eventually become this long-awaited comeback. Husband Burnett continues to allow artists to shine, and he recently produced the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack, a surprisingly popular roots-music collection. Phillips also took on music-writing work for the WB television series The Gilmore Girls.
When I heard a new CD was coming after lo these many years, and knowing Sam Phillips’ penchant for change, I wondered what to expect. The good news is that fans will not be disappointed. Fan Dance is a quiet comeback on a new progressive label, a collection of a dozen intimate songs with stripped-down production that places this talented chanteuse solidly back into the heart of adult contemporary music’s spotlight. The feel and sound is almost that of a live performance in a small setting. The songwriting is strong, the tunes catchy enough with repeated listening, and the lyrics are cryptic at times, but not off-putting, dealing largely with spiritual searching in matters of the heart. It’s doubt and hope and eternal questions wrapped in an aural banquet of delicate arrangements.
Even with the spare approach, details lurk in dark corners to make each listen a discovery. Musical and lyrical hooks might be a little harder to locate than on previous albums, but Phillips still has the ability to compose tunes that haunt you like vaguely remembered dreams. Her songs retain the Beatles’ pedigree, only now it’s filtered through a more adult sensibility. Intentionally, Phillips makes it a challenge, offering up lyrics that don’t lend themselves to easy interpretation. Instead these words tease you with their obscurity. This is deeply ruminative stuff, solemn even in playfulness, expressing a solitude that has found peace.
The affair kicks off with faux Asian influences on the title track, the lyrics working off simple guitars to convey the optimistic salvation of performance even in a world of woes: “And when I do the fan dance / Searchlights answer gunfire / Angels escort falling mercies / hearts shut off like streetlights, but even in the blackout / I’ll find my balcony rose”. “Edge of the World” offers an aura of cabaret; piano and vocals delivering cryptic messages that are equal parts hope and desolation “at the edge of the world looking up”. “Five Colors” recalls the music of “Circle of Fire”, with words that aim to capture the resolve of inner searching: “I don’t mind if I am getting nowhere / Circling the seed of light”, yet still seeking elusive answers: “I tried but I can’t find refuge in the angle / I’ll walk the mystery of the curve”.
“Taking Pictures” looks at a Hollywood-type world of shadow without substance, admitting boldly that “the places I go are never there” and proclaiming “nostalgia isn’t what it used to be” against a musical backdrop of deliciously eerie harpsichord. Two songs explore sex-related themes: “Soul Eclipse” is a funky little musical pastiche that deals with the turmoil of disjointed thoughts in bed, while “Incinerator” lets Ribot take his best Elvis Costello/Tom Waits guitar twangs into a deconstructed sort of folk/blues jangle, while a lover tries to remain detached from the destructive flames of incinerating passion.
Nowhere is a simple arrangement more poignantly delivered than in the two minutes of the optimistic “Love Is Everywhere I Go”, while “Is That Your Zebra?” offers an upbeat little Latin-influenced ditty as sung instrumental (working in the questions “What When Who How Where and When”). “Say What You Mean” closes the CD with a point-blank treatise on telling it like it is: “You’ll despise and protect you’ll fool and you’ll bruise / How hungry are you how much can you lose / You know what I would do for you don’t ask it’s too late / Just tell me straight”.
“Wasting Time” features a beautiful Martin Tillman cello accompaniment arranged by Van Dyke Parks, while Sam’s voice tells the tale of someone realizing the pain of a love gone wrong: “My soul’s a worn out road where you’ve left a trail of reminders / The sky forgets turns black with pain / But the rain remembers your face / and the streets know your name”. Probably my favorite song here is “How To Dream”, a charming paean to creative expression that reminds us “when we open our eyes and dream we open our eyes”.
This collection of marvelously restless yet intelligent searching clocks in at a mere 33 minutes, yet it’s got more quality within it than many CDs twice its length. It’s simple in sound and complex in content—a modest spiritual affair, delivering personal messages of provocation and poetry without easy interpretation. Burnett’s minimal production allows the melodies to shine and lets Phillips’ honest, heartfelt vocals and challenging lyrics take center stage. Fan Dance is a tribute to economy, ingenuity and quality; the gestation of retirement behind her, the growth of the artist now resumes, thankfully. After a long wait, Sam Phillips has given us a good one for the mind and the heart.