Sam Phillips: The Disappearing Act 1987-1998 (Raven)

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Sam Phillips: Same Rain (from Martinis and Bikinis, 1994)
Sam Phillips: The Disappearing Act 1987-1998 (Raven)

When this fine singer-songwriter appeared as Sam Phillips in the late Eighties/early Nineties (she'd been a Christian folk-rocker Leslie Phillips for three albums before her un-conversion) I was smitten straight away. So much so that when her Cruel Inventions rolled around in '91 I interviewed her at great length and put the huge article of the cover of the Herald's entertainment section announcing her genius.

I assumed -- wrongly as it transpired -- that writing great songs with cool pop references to the Everly's/Beatles/Costello, being well connected and well produced (her husband was the slightly eccentric T Bone Burnett, and being signed to Virgin would see her on the fast-track to fame.

Didn't happen.

Maybe I was, as with World Party, one album too late and one too early because her previous album The Indescribable Wow was more commercial, and for Cruel Inventions she and Burnett had taken off on a tangent. Pity, because the follow-up Martinis and Bikinis in '94 should have been her big breakthrough.

Inspired by the Beatles' Rubber Soul/Revolver-era (and ain't that the perfect period to pick?), Martinis and Bikinis was and remains a thrilling collection of pop-rock with intelligent lyrics -- and it even got a Grammy nomination. Again the critics hailed her -- and again the album failed to set the world alight.

And so her career rolled on with the experimental Omnipop, by which time Virgin was starting to listen to their accountants. The inevitable "best of" appeared (actually her personal favourites, critics might have disputed some choices) and her career at Virgin was wound up at the end of the Nineties.

She's still out there (on Nonesuch) but any thoughts she will have the mainstream success she richly deserved seem to be gone forever.

This excellent overview of her Virgin years opens with a couple of early track from her "losing my religion" album The Turning, then picks up five apiece from Wow and Cruel Inventions, half a dozen from Martinis, four from Omnipop and closes with the unfortunately named title track to this collection which comes from that "best of".

Pop-rock is a curious animal and no one has ever been able to explain to me why great people like Phillips, Matthew Sweet, Grant Lee Buffalo and many many others are passed over in favour of . . . well, you can name numerous lesser talents who have ill-deserved but viable careers.

Anyway, Sam Phillips is more than deserving of this fine collection on Raven Records (well annotated as usual) -- and of your best attention.

Anyone who has Burnett producing, did fine covers of covered Nancy Sinatra's Boots for the Altman movie Pret-a-Porter and Lennon's Gimme Some Truth, sang with Brian Wilson and his daughter Carnie (for the Rob Wasserman album Trios) and had a walk-on part in a Die Hard flick (as a mute German terrorist!) certainly has more than a little going for them. 


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marke - Apr 19, 2009

I really like Sam - her voice, songs, arrangements, production - yeah, like you, I don't know why she didn't strike big. I've been listening to The Fan Dance album in the car recently - probably doesn't have the songs that Cruel Inventions or Martinis and Bikinis and is certainly more downbeat - but "Four Colours" and "Edge of the World" in particular are just great. I don't know much about the earlier stuff on this greatest hits (sic) package so I will investigate. And thank goodness she saw the light and left the Lord behind - 'Christian' and 'rock' (or even 'folk') are contradictions in terms - the devil has always had the best music.

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