Sunday, January 13, 2013

Solid Gold Question Mark

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Sam Phillips, The Indescribable Wow. One of the old cars I drove in high school only got AM stations, and I spent a lot of time flipping between the two I could tolerate best, the R&B station and the Christian pop station. It was slim pickings, but it's how I first heard Sade ("Hang On To Your Love" was released as a single on "urban" radio before "Smooth Operator" conquered the entire dial) and Leslie Phillips, a Christian pop diva with just enough edge in her voice to keep my interest.

Flash forward to college, when a friend tipped me about a great new record by a singer/songwriter named Sam Phillips, whom he said had previously been on a Christian label but had left it to make "secular" music. I don't think I made the connection at first, not only because it didn't sound much at all like Leslie Phillips' Madonna-manque era music but because The Indescribable Wow was such a perfectly realized collection of baroque pop, with big choruses over prickly harpsichords and warm organs and tasty guitars, and with Phillips' Belinda Carlisle-esque soprano already showing shades of the mezzo melancholy that would characterize it in later years; I loved it immediately on its own terms. There was no discernible "Christian" content, but as I learned more about her and the record--whose pristine, layered sound, up to and including the obligatory Van Dyke Parks string arrangement, could be credited to its producer, T-Bone Burnett, another crypto-Christian rocker and not coincidentally her husband--my affinity with her only grew; I identified both with her faith and with her distaste for the conservative, evangelical version she'd rejected to pursue a less rigid artistic muse.

I later discovered that T-Bone had produced her last record as Leslie, 1987's striking The Turning, and, perhaps in the spirit of appropriating early rock 'n' roll names shared by their buddy, Elvis Costello, had suggested "Sam" as her new moniker. It's been many years now, T-Bone's no longer her husband, and her voice has considerably darkened in timbre; but her songwriting craft is as formidable as ever (her 2004 album A Boot and a Shoe may be her best yet). As I've had the leisure to sift through her entire ouevre, I've unearthed some gems, and now regularly perform an acoustic version of one of her best Christian-era tunes, "Your Kindness," at my little church in Brooklyn. But none of her genius would have made an impact on me, faith or scratchy AM radio or no, if she hadn't made this brilliant pop confection as her first Sam Phillips record.

Cinco Paul One of my favorite albums ever. Introduced to me by you, so thanks!

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