Sam Phillips, “Martinis & Bikinis”

martinis and bikinis

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #42 – released March 8, 1994)

Track listing: Love & Kisses / Signposts / Same Rain / Baby I Can’t Please You / Circle Of Fire / Strawberry Road / When I Fall / Same Changes / Black Sky / Fighting With Fire / I Need Love / Wheel Of The Broken Voice / Gimme Some Truth

This entire project began with The Beatles; forty-odd entries on, we’ve reached possibly the most Beatles-esque album in my music library. It opens with trilling harpsichord on the left stereo channel and a treated vocal on the right, and ends with an ominous cover of a John Lennon solo song heavily submerged in reverb. In between, there are tunes with Fab Four-ish titles like “Strawberry Road” and “Same Rain”, lots of melodic, ringing electric guitar riffs, and a general excess of pure pop hooks. Colin Moulding, a member of the most Beatles-esque band I’ve written about thus far even plays bass and co-produced one song. And, although Martinis & Bikinis simply wouldn’t exist without the likes of Revolver and Abbey Road, what prevents it from seeming derivative or mere pastiche (in other words, the collected works of Lenny Kravitz) is the woman on the cover.

Sam Phillips (not to be confused with the Sun Records impresario) is many things: a gifted singer-songwriter, an underrated alt-rock goddess, a composer of incidental television music (all those “la, la la’s” on Gilmore Girls) and a performer with a stage presence that’s both warmly confident and magnificently eerie. In recent years, she has also become a fiercely independent artist, almost an iconoclast of sorts—a quality one can trace back near the start of her career, when she recorded Contemporary Christian music under her birth name, Leslie Phillips. After four well-received albums in that genre, she concluded she no longer wanted to be “a cheerleader for God” (as she bluntly put it in one interview) and switched over to secular pop music (and professionally adopted a childhood family nickname). Whether brought on by an actual crisis of faith, feeling discomfort from that boxed-in community, or by meeting musician T-Bone Burnett (who became both her longtime producer and romantic partner after helming her final Leslie album), her decision to leave one world behind for another continually enhances the cultural, philosophical, and yes, spiritual nature of much of her subsequent catalog.

Transitioning from religious to secular music, her artistry immediately flourished. The Indescribable Wow (1988), her debut as Sam, is a near-perfect ten-track album of sly, sighing retro pop. A little more tart and perhaps a few shades darker, Cruel Inventions (1991) kicks off with the clever confession, “If I told myself I believed in love, and that’s enough / I’d be lying,” and concludes with a gorgeous manifesto against uniformity (“Where The Colors Don’t Go”). Both records are very good, though the former’s production sometimes feels a little dated and the latter is occasionally a touch too internal (it could use a little more sweetening). By contrast, Martinis & Bikinis is an important step forward, not only for Phillips’ growing confidence and agility as both a lyricist and a tunesmith, but also in how effortlessly it balances her affable persona with an ever-cunning acidity (just look at that album cover).

Following “Love and Kisses”, a minute-long apéritif whose lyrics contain the album’s purposely frivolous title, Phillips doles out one catchy, tightly constructed pop song after another. Practically every instrumental and vocal part provides some sort of hook, from the clipped barre chords of “Signposts” and the elastic bass line of “Same Rain” to the declarative opening riffs of both “When I Fall” and “Same Changes” (the latter almost as effective as the one in The Beatles’ “Day Tripper”). And yet, only roughly half of Martinis & Bikinis is strictly guitar pop. As with the Fab Four, Phillips doesn’t shy away from adornments inspired by a spectrum of musical genres. “Baby I Can’t Please You”, for instance, has a Middle Eastern flavored, Van Dyke Parks string arrangement (along with plenty of sitars and tablas), while ecological lament “Black Sky” aims for Tom Waits-style, post-apocalyptic minimalism, with Phillips’ vocal almost entirely carrying the melody over a stark, clanging percussion-heavy backdrop. Both are pop songs that also expand the idea of what such a thing can contain.

Martinis & Bikinis’ most striking departure, “Strawberry Road”, is on one hand not much of a departure at all, given that its Beatles-isms fit so seamlessly alongside all of the album’s other Beatles-isms. But this track borrows a bit more extensively: in addition to the title, an obvious gloss on “Strawberry Fields Forever”, the sparse, staccato strings recall those in both “Eleanor Rigby” and “For No One” and the swooping, backing “aaahhh’s” could be from any number of Lennon/McCartney compositions. And yet, while even the most casual listener could detect those influences, you’d never mistake it for a Beatles song. Whether it’s her highly distinctive voice (somewhere between a twang and a lilt), or her particular way with a melody (a trait much easier to intuit than adequately describe), the song is almost like alchemy, with Phillips spinning something new and unique out of various existing, recognizable parts.

Still, while I’m willing to bet that her command of music, melody and vocal tone are often what draw new listeners towards Phillips, her lyrics are what really prolong that initial sense of discovery and intrigue. Although certainly comfortable with making simple, accessible declarations like “Baby I Can’t Please You” and “I Need Love”, more often than not, she’s cultivating an inquisitive persona—she’s ultimately a seeker. Of course, once you know about her past life as the “Christian Cyndi Lauper”, it’s hard not to equate this whole nature as a result of leaving that past behind. However, she’s crafty to a degree that her specific references to such are few and far between. Here, they surface on “I Need Love”, the album’s catchiest, most direct pop song. On the chorus, she admits, “I need love / not some sentimental prison,” then follows it with, “I need God / not the political church.” She tempers that statement’s boldness with the next line: “I need fire / to melt the frozen sea inside me,” shifting back from a cultural to an intimate and fully personal context. It’s not hard to fathom why this remains Phillips’ best known song, though you have to wonder if all those who first heard it in the Liv Tyler vehicle Stealing Beauty or later via a perfume ad had any idea what it was really about.

What’s explicitly stated in “I Need Love” is actually embedded throughout Martinis & Bikinis, but in more poetic and often thornier (and ambiguous) language: “I got myself so tightly wound I couldn’t breathe” (the opening line of “Signposts”); “You try to tell the world how it should spin / but you live in terror with the hollow men” (from “Baby I Can’t Please You”); “You circle the city from the sky / watching children swallowing your lies” (from “Circle Of Fire”); “You can’t get there with your morals or without love” (from “Strawberry Road”). All these songs are deliberately left open to interpretation; the person she hopes to encounter in “When I Fall” could very well be a human being or God, while the subject of “Fighting With Fire” is either a crooked businessman or the Devil himself. As Leslie, she proselytized as the genre required of her; as Sam, she questions. Not only did secular pop music enable her to reach a wider audience by default, it also allowed Phillips to come into her own, opening up worlds of thought and expression that, by her third album as Sam, she was fully taking advantage of.

It so happens that Phillips will return to this project each time she makes another significant career change, but the first one is still years away. Meanwhile, 100 Albums itself will return in January with an entry that both sums up and redefines three decades of British pop.

“I Need Love”:

 

“Strawberry Road”

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2 thoughts on “Sam Phillips, “Martinis & Bikinis”

  1. Howard December 6, 2015 / 9:38 am

    I’m sure you are aware how important she is to me (up there with Aimee), so this article is not only an intriguing read; but it is a mirror to feelings towards her and the album. Her debut trifecta of albums got me through many things including being kicked out is the Navy, a bold move across the country from South Carolina to Oregon, and my subsequent first attempt at loving in Denver. Seriously, Chris, this is my favorite of your write ups. Like Martinis, it is an impeccable look at another artist.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ckriofske December 6, 2015 / 10:30 am

    Thanks, Howard! Sam is one of those artists who had a significant impact on my life as well; there are others coming up that I’m really looking forward to writing about, especially once I reach ’96.

    Like

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