7.31.2008

Sam Phillips, Don't Do Anything (Nonesuch, 2008)


With a history that includes her past life as Leslie Phillips, the big-haired golden girl of 80's Christian rock, and an acting role as a mute terrorist in Die Harder with a Vengeance, Sam Phillips would be noteworthy for the basic oddness of her career trajectory even if her music wasn't that good. However, Phillips' insistence on marching to the beat of her own slightly off-kilter drum has resulted in some very strong albums over the past two decades. Until recently, the one predictable element on a given Sam Phillips album was the production of T-Bone Burnett, her husband. But several songs on Phillips' 2004 CD A Boot and a Shoe hinted that the marriage was unraveling, a fact that she confirmed on her subsequent tour. She really appeared to have been blindsided by the turn of events, but happily Phillips has resurfaced strongly with her new release Don't Do Anything, her best album in over a decade.

While Phillips and Burnett still seem to be on speaking terms -- she thanks him in the credits, and she did allow a song she wrote for this album, called "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us," to also be recorded by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss on the Burnett-produced Raising Sand -- she opted to produce Don't Do Anything herself. (With most of the songs making a direct or indirect reference to him, it might have been awkward.) Starting with the opening track "No Explanations," with its ominous double-tracked lead-in vocal, dueling distorted guitars, and heavy drums unaccompanied by a bass, Phillips shows off plenty of skill in that role. While Don't Do Anything maintains the minimalist approach to instrumentation employed on A Boot and a Shoe and her 2001 release Fan Dance, electric guitars are mixed in more evenly with the acoustics this time around. The resulting sound incorporates as much of the power pop of 1994's excellent Martinis and Bikinis and the unnerving dissonance of her classic 1996 album Omnipop as it does the folksy cabaret of the two more recent albums, and the mix works really well.

In addition to "No Explanations," the album has a particularly strong run of songs in its middle. "Little Plastic Life" is a fun pop song, complete with a catchy chorus, about "the domestic dreams we try out on each other...and ourselves". "My Career in Chemistry" is an Elvis Costello style rave-up about the explosiveness of romance and the lingering effects when it's gone. Phillips evokes late-era Beatles on "Flowers Up," with a string quartet backing her up on piano. Over the years, she has been a rare performer who can wear the influence of the Beatles on her sleeve without sounding overly reverential, or like she's trying to be somebody other than herself. "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us" is both a song about finding inspiration at a difficult time and a tribute to the legendary gospel singer and guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Phillips wrote it in a style that would have fit right in on her last two albums, but the song gets a bouncier, more festive arrangement on this record than it probably would have gotten had she recorded it earlier, and I think this liveliness makes Phillips' own version slightly superior to the version done by Plant and Krauss.

Some people might complain that at thirty-five minutes, Don't Do Anything is too short. I've bought too many hour-long albums where only half an hour is any good, though, and the really good albums are good as a whole. And this is a really good album.

Overall grade: A

Reviewed by Scott


To view the video for "Can't Come Down," click here.

1 comment:

illustrationISM said...

her music and lyrics are so succinct
and powerful!
each album
sets more stones
in path as a respected artist;
like the simple prayer of bartimaus,
she's blessed in return!

mark jaquette @
illustrationism &
bammgraphics !