I‘ll be reviewing Sam Phillips’ Don’t Do Anything for Christianity Today, and I’m thrilled. Feels like a landmark moment for me, since Sam’s journey has blazed the trail for me in my understanding of, and appreciation for, the wide world of artmaking. To get to review one of her albums for Christianity Today is a privilege and pleasure.
So now… I’m off to turn up the stereo (which is currently spinning Mockingbird, Allison Moorer‘s sensual new album of knockout covers… which really should be billed as Allison Moorer & Buddy Miller album…). And I’ll sit back, listen, and then listen again while I finish up my review of Flight of the Red Balloon for CT Movies.
It may sound crazy, but that’s my idea of an excellent evening.
My review won’t be in CT for a while. Here are a few first impression notes I shared with friends last night:
The album is a playful pop blast. With a twist of lemon. And another twist of lemon.
And a dash of rage.
Sounds a little like the album that could have come out right after Cruel Inventions… the same kind of whimsical invention, with a wiser, sadder Sam at the mike and (at last) the controls. While she seemed broken, intimate, and mournful on the last two albums, here she sounds like she might, at any given moment, just slip away. These are songs for the middle of the night, leaning hopeful into a morning that shows little sign of dawning. In her words, she’s “watching out of this world.”
It opens with a sound you might expect on a PJ Harvey record… a kick-drum-driven blowtorch of a song called “No Explanations.” What comes after is a colorful array of songs that build on the Beatles-tinged styles and soul-searching themes we’ve come to expect from her. But the acoustic guitar that was front and center for the last two albums is often set aside in favor of piano, strings, electric jangle, and buzz-guitar.¬†Her favorite toy, that mini-cassette recorder, returns for a cameo. And Jay Bellerose’s fantastic storm of drums rumbles, shakes, rattles, and rolls more prominently than ever before.The title track is just awesome–an expression of love that requires no striving, no accomplishment. I realized right away that you can sing “How to Dream” right over it, like they’re two parts of the same song, which could open up some interesting possibilities in live performances. The song we already love, thanks to¬†its longtime availability on her website, and its appearance on the Allison Krauss/Robert Plant record,¬†is the climax of this album: “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us.” And it’s¬†still a knockout.¬†
Sam still has a lot to sing about the breakdown of her marriage to T-Bone Burnett; some lines are so direct they sting.
The songs sometimes seem very short, even fleeting, as if they’re only as long as she has the strength to sing such raw lyrics. That lends to the feeling of an artist wrung out. No, not wrung out of inspiration. Wrung out by love. And yet, hope is active in every song, a belief that help is out there. Somewhere.