Phillips' seminal work is a shining example of how she is the societal conscience that exists within the fringes of our mind.
In Stacy Title’s 1995 black comedy, The Last Supper, there is a scene in which a despondent Cameron Diaz is planting tomatoes near the graves of those with super-conservative agendas that she and her friends have killed. In this scene (kind of a montage really), the guilt and wear of actually killing people, regardless of how their political beliefs paint them, is beginning to show on these characters — especially Diaz. As she plants those tomatoes, she cries while Sam Phillips’ tune “When I Fall” (from her glorious 1994 album, Martinis and Bikinis) plays over top the action: “We don't want lives of steel / We don't want hearts that feel / We want to live above it all / I feel you closing in / a target on my skin / I think you'll be there when I fall…”. It’s a poignant scene demonstrating how basic compassion and humanity can eat away at you when you live too long with the impression that your ideals are more superior to others. Although the song is actually about falling in love, this scene in the film and its reconfiguration of the song’s meaning is an example of the brilliance this criminally underrated songwriter possesses — Martinis and Bikinis being her seminal work (newly remastered for your listening enjoyment).
Phillips has come close on a few occasions to having some semblance of mainstream success; however, like the scene described above, it’s most likely that many discovered her nuance and darkened pop sensibilities through movie soundtracks, television instrumentals, or the rare occasion when one of her songs is played on the radio. Chances are, if you heard one of her songs on the radio, then it was most likely a track from Martinis and Bikinis. Her third release as “Sam Phillips” (her seventh overall), the album is a wonderfully dark and touching pop album in the vein of the greatest Beatles tunes. Unlike her most comparable counterpart, Aimee Mann, Phillips' tunes are focused more predominantly inward. The album is elf-possessed and insightful, and with wonderfully crafted pop songs. Take for instance “Signposts”, the first full track on the record. Opening with jumpy distorted guitars, Phillips calmly sings: “I got myself so tightly wound, I couldn’t breathe / I could feel the fire burning underneath”, before cascading in a glorious chorus of: “I wanted to get lost in love, the question’s there / Beauty and the truth, I could breathe like air / Then I finally found the signposts in a strange land”. This is but a glimpse into the world you are about to enter.
Phillips propels ever forward with tunes about questioning faith, realizing she’s in an impossible relationship where she’ll never be able to please her lover, and finally confronting the religious powers that be in the superiorly pointed “Circle of Fire”. She sings: “I saw you standing alone / I wondered if you wanted what you owned / Your magic ladders in the sky / Tie you to the place where angels fight in the circle of fire / Our madness, our envy and desire / Ring you with an unforgiving fire / You love them with a burning soul / By the time he sold the ashes, they were cold / In the circle of fire”. She’s come along way from her humble Christian belongings, which is what makes tunes like “Circle of Fire” so wonderful. This isn’t some hackneyed outsider who was made to go to church on Sunday when she preferred to stay home and watch cartoons. This is someone who lived the hypocrisy, who suffered through the constrictions and saw the injustices and exclusivity. This is someone who moved past all of this and, fortunately for us, channeled this rage and indignation into one of the best pop records of our time. It’s just a shame that so few people have actually heard it.
In the liner notes of the reissue, Phillips writes: “Can pop music still be pop if it’s not popular?” This is ultimately the conundrum of Phillips’ career. She works within a genre that is characteristically defined as being popular, and yet it’s difficult to say that Phillips is, even though her style is reminiscent of arguably the most popular band ever. Knowing this makes Martinis a bittersweet and fiercely personal listen. This isn’t the stuff your friends are listening to, yet it feels like Phillips is speaking for all of us when she sings (on her most popular tune “I Need Love”): “I left my conscience like a crying child / Locked the door behind me put the pain on file / Broken like a window I see my blindness now / And I need love not some sentimental prison / I need god not the political church / I need fire to melt frozen sleet inside me / I need love”. Perhaps the content of these tracks has been regurgitated over the years accompanied by louder instrumentation and pulsating beats, but never have they been as eloquently relayed as they are here. Perhaps it is her lack of mainstream popularity that makes her so intriguing. Phillips represents a societal conscience that exists within the fringes of our mind, whispering about social injustices, personal and political hypocrisies, lovelorn, and self-reflection.
The reissue of Martinis and Bikinis comes beautifully remastered so that every intricate detail that went into T-Bone Burnett’s unbelievably inspired production choices is made more vibrant and alert. It is the bonus material which begins after Phillips’ cover of John Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth” that leave much to be desired. Beginning with a quartet version of “I Need Love”, it’s lovely, but it doesn’t possess any of the burning desire of the original. An alternate remix of “Fighting with Fire” was made previously available on Phillips’ collection effort Zero Zero Zero. The calmer (and ultimately less effective) version of “Black Sky” is quite disappointing given the original’s power and poignancy, which finally leads us into another subdued version of a brilliant classic, “Strawberry Road”. Although Phillips has mentioned that she would have preferred her vocal deliveries on the original versions of these tracks to reflect her newer versions, you can’t help but feel like some of the power is lost. They are lovely additions in their own right, but stick out like a sore thumb coming at the very end of such a magnificently cathartic and powerful record. Also absent are any additional tracks or b-sides from this era. Overall, Martinis and Bikinis is worth the purchase for the sheer fact that the original album is one of the most accomplished pop records of any generation, and it’s remastering here only helps illuminate that fact.