In the late ’80s, fine-voiced singer/songwriter Leslie Phillips turned her back on a successful career as a contemporary Christian artist in order to make more personally fulfilling music under her historically resonant nickname, Sam. (The Turning — which was reissued a decade later with a new cover under the artist’s new name — was quite audibly produced by her husband and fellow Christian subversive, T-Bone Burnett; Beyond Saturday Night was produced by future Jellyfish associate Jack Joseph Puig. Recollection is a smart sampler, with a couple of previously unreleased songs and a home demo.) If Phillips’ gospel discs were a cut above the shallow, preachy tracts that dominate that genre, her pop work — produced and occasionally co-written by Burnett — is a revelation, consistently addressing difficult questions rather than offering simplistic answers.
The Indescribable Wow is an impressive if somewhat tentative debut. Most of the songs are thoughtful ballads with ornate, acoustic-based art-pop arrangements, but it’s on the album’s two rockers, “Holding on to the Earth” and “What You Don’t Want to Hear,” that Phillips’ vision comes across most forcefully. Cruel Inventions is more assured and distinctive, both musically and lyrically, with songs like “Go Down,” “Raised on Promises” and “Where the Colors Don’t Go” effortlessly demonstrating the strength of her vision.
Martinis & Bikinis makes good use of a more driving, psychedelicized sound; with Phillips’ strongest lyrics yet, it’s her best and bravest effort. The Beatlesque “Baby, I Can’t Please You” pointedly addresses doctrinaire fundamentalism in pop terms; “I Need Love,” “Circle of Fire,” “Strawberry Road” and “Same Rain” all illuminate thorny spiritual issues while showcasing an increasingly incisive melodic ability.
While Martinis & Bikinis brought Phillips some deserved commercial progress, Omnipop killed her momentum dead. The pointless subtitle (a quote from The Producers) is the first indication of the problems within. The album gives some of the least distinguished songs of Phillips’ career the most over-the-top fussy production of Burnett’s. Too many of the songs are half-baked and unmemorable, barely suitable for filler on her better albums, while the ones with promise are smothered by Burnett’s atypical overproduction. Only the galloping, Hawaii-meets-Tijuana “Zero Zero Zero” rises to their usual standards. (For the record, “Slapstick Heart” is a joint composition by Sam and R.E.M.) Omnipop was more than a flesh wound — it was a shot from which it would take Phillips’ career five years to recover.
Zero Zero Zero is Phillips’ handpicked summary of her Virgin catalogue. It’s a good, solid retrospective, featuring a couple of new tracks, several remixes, an unnecessary but pretty good re-recording of “Holding on to the Earth” and an odd outtake of some Marc Ribot guitar noodling. Notable omissions are “I Don’t Know How to Say Goodbye,” “Baby I Can’t Please You” and, oddly enough, the title track.
Taking a break for motherhood and an obvious artistic rethink following Omnipop, Phillips resurfaced in 2001 with Fan Dance. Though the album’s stripped-down approach is disorienting at first, the songs eventually sink in, revealing one of her finest efforts. The simple presentation gives songs like “Five Colors,” “Wasting My Time” and “How to Dream” a dreamlike quality, and the album has an exotic, appealing tone.
Phillips undoubtedly reached a new audience by providing music for the TV show The Gilmore Girls — her “la la las” between scene changes became a factor in the show’s character and charm.
A Boot and a Shoe plays like a companion piece to Fan Dance; the arrangements are similarly stripped down, but the overall vibe is more upbeat and sunny. But that happier tone is deceptive, as the lyrics evidently reflect on the end of the Phillips–Burnett marital (if not artistic) partnership. Phillips plays more guitar than ever; while conceding that she’s not especially proficient, she likes the feel her playing gives her music, and it’s hard to argue. She still has a knack for melodies that are brand new yet feel totally familiar: “All Night,” “Open the World,” “Reflecting Light,” “Love Changes Everything” and “One Day Late” are as good as anything else she has recorded.
The Phillips/Burnett artistic partnership was consistently rewarding, but Don’t Do Anything proves that Phillips was ready and able to move on without him. Producing herself for the first time, playing most of the guitar and even creating chunks of the cover art, Phillips dispels any lingering notions anyone might have had of Svengali-ism on Burnett’s part. Brimming with confidence and good humor, Don’t Do Anything is another high point in a career that threatens to become overstuffed with them. The album includes “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us,” a Phillips creation that previously turned up on Alison Krauss and Robert Plant’s well-received Raising Sand.