(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #88 – released June 3, 2008)
Track listing: No Explanations / Can’t Come Down / Another Song / Don’t Do Anything / Little Plastic Life / My Career In Chemistry / Flowers Up / Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us / Shake It Down / Under The Night / Signal / Watching Out Of This World
Dedicated to Howard Semones (1967-2017), who loved Sam Phillips and provided encouraging feedback on my first essay about her.
Admire consistency and certainty all you want in a musician’s collected output—it just can’t match the sudden thrill that materializes whenever an artist takes a sharp left turn and miraculously manages to land on his/her own feet. While one can easily distill what Sam Phillips sounds like into a simple sentence or even less (such as her iconic “la, la, la’s” peppered throughout the score of long-running TV series Gilmore Girls), her career as a whole is far more noteworthy for all of its unexpected twists and ongoing refinements as they comprise an ever-shifting, continuously maturing body of work.
As previously detailed here, in 1988, she left behind a successful five-year run as contemporary Christian singer Leslie Phillips (her birth name) for the secular pop world, adopting a family nickname, expanding her audience exponentially and locating her artistic voice as a Beatles-inspired, alternative-pop singer/songwriter. Following four critically adored, if low-selling major label albums, she took a five-year sabbatical, reemerging with 2001’s moodier, far more enigmatic Fan Dance. A radical break, she stripped her often-heavily produced sound down to a few carefully chosen essentials, in the process sharpening everything that remained—she was still fully recognizable as Sam Phillips, but as if viewed from a different, heretofore unconsidered angle.
Her next record, A Boot and A Shoe (2004), did not reinvent the wheel so freely. Predominantly acoustic and sparsely arranged, it played like a logical sequel to Fan Dance, only a little more outgoing, pastoral, even sunny–sounding on occasion. At the time of its release, however, Phillips dropped the bombshell that she had very recently split with her longtime producer and husband T-Bone Burnett. They had worked together for seven straight albums, from 1987’s The Turning (her final effort as Leslie) all the way up through A Boot and A Shoe.
Four years later, she returned with her first self-produced effort, Don’t Do Anything. While not as extensive an overhaul of her sound as Fan Dance, it marked as bold and definite a line in the sand in Phillips’s discography as her change from Christian to secular music did two decades before. Its indelible cover image of her, fully clothed, sitting in a bathtub in a confrontational pose, head cocked as if to appear unapologetic about how much a spectacle she’s just made of herself serves as a harbinger of what’s inside—particularly when one compares it to the relatively anodyne imagery on her last two album covers.
“I thought if he understood / he wouldn’t treat me this way,” Phillips sings on opener “No Explanations”; her voice is noticeably isolated and raw (even with its signature elongated syllables) and soon joined by a strummed, distorted electric guitar and, barely audible in the background, a rudimentary stomp of a beat. The latter grows ominously louder and more forceful after the first verse, becoming primal and urgent as Phillips, not mincing any words, declares, “This is bigger than you / and a part of the truth you trust / This is the breaking of you.” A delightfully nagging guitar riff comes in near the end, matching both her quiet fury and about-face demeanor. She’s leaving the past behind from the get-go, determined to locate a way out of this mess.
With someone as beholden to wordplay and metaphor as Phillips, it’s risky to assume that Don’t Do Anything is her Breakup Album and leave it at that. Still, it’s tempting to speculate whom many of these songs are directed to—especially whenever she opts for such simple language as, “Did you ever love me?”, a lyric pleadingly sung and repeated throughout “Another Song”, or the whole of “Signal”, a downtrodden waltz where she confesses, “I gave you who I am in secret” while the Section Quartet’s strings mournfully descend with each measure. Then again, there’s the title track where she straightforwardly proclaims, “I love you when you don’t do anything / When you’re useless, I love you more.” She could be directing this towards any kind of love in her life, but the fuzzed-out guitar that finely coats the song, along with the melody’s simple poignancy and the strings that creep into the second half all leave an aftertaste—not bitter, exactly, but resigned and a tad melancholy. As she did all over Fan Dance, she continuously hints at what the song may be about, disclosing and withholding in near-equal measure.
On the album’s peppier, more rambunctious numbers, she’s less ambiguous. “Little Plastic Life” has a discernible bounce in its step with its brisk, 4/4 swing beat over which Phillips makes observations such as, “Perfect was a nice disguise / it never fit / but I still have my little plastic life to remind me.” She’s slinky, poised, almost whimsical in the verses, but when the volume turns up in the chorus, so does her temperament. “I detected a fire in myself before the flame / that BURNED IT ALL TO THE GROUND,” she exclaims in accompaniment with loud, gleeful electric guitar chords, and at once, you sense that the acidic, mischievous Sam of Martinis and Bikinis is back in full force.
“My Career In Chemistry” sustains the raucous tone in its awesome call-and-response interplay between Phillips and drummer Jay Bellerose (who is in many ways the album’s MVP.) His fills between her vocals are instinctual and intricate, a high wire act that’s fun to listen to as it tightly keeps the song’s melody and structure in check. “We had the concoction no one knows / Never found the formula, tricks exposed,” sings Phillips, constructing an extended metaphor for a failed relationship but with good humor and a hint of self-deprecation. “You’re the chemical that never did wear off,” she notes, before wryly concluding, “I still wear you / ba-ba-ba, ba, ba-ba.”
“Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us” is likely the best known song here because of Robert Plant’s and Alison Krauss’ cover, which came out the year before on their hit collaborative album Raising Sand (produced by T-Bone Burnett!) Whereas that version comes off as reverent and stately, Phillips’s take on her own song (about Sister Rosetta Thorpe, a pioneering mid-20th Century guitarist whose music prefigured rock n’ roll) feels more celebratory: it raises the tempo to a folk/gypsy groove complete with electric mandolin, pump organ and a violin solo from Eric Gorfain (a key collaborator with Phillips from this album on—they’d eventually get married.)
“Shake It Down” even finds her wandering head-on into Tom Waits territory (at least musically, if not vocally): the start-and-stop rhythm sounds less like it’s coming out of a drum kit than from farm tools and household objects (when performed live around this time, Phillips brought out on stage a ridiculously giant pitchfork on which she “played” the coda’s extended solo), while Gorfain’s banjo and Phillips’s old-timey, wind-up piano noises place the song in this strange netherworld, neither fully pop nor folk nor Americana.
Don’t Do Anything as a whole falls more in line with her two previous records’ stripped-down approach than her lushly-produced ’90s work, but there are perceptible differences. “Can’t Come Down” counts only Phillips and Bellerose among its performers and wraps itself up in a concise 1:59, but it’s more persuasive and direct than anything on Fan Dance even if its lyrics remain oblique (“I tried to pull the rope down from the sky / It wouldn’t come down, so I started to climb.”) “Under The Night” plays like an above-ground equivalent to Fan Dance’s “Below Surface”, its guitar fuzz gently soothing but also menacing, adding a layer of distance to a straightforward melody. “Flowers Up” recasts the title track’s overcast resignation as clean, intimate chamber pop with its Beatles-esque piano and exquisite strings—it’s almost impossibly beautiful without feeling cutesy or precious.
The same goes for album closer “Watching Out of This World”. Although it reverts to the low-hum, fundamental electric guitar sound that’s all over Don’t Do Anything, its melody has a simple, resonant beauty that makes it one of the most affecting songs in Phillips’s catalog. With only electric violin and piano fleshing out the arrangement, it’s almost a hymn: “The splendor / The holiness of life / that reveals itself / Converting blind faith / into destiny,” she sings, before the chorus which is just the song title, the first word stretched to eight syllables, her overdubbed backing vocals inducing chills as only she can. World-weary like many of the album’s songs, it also feels like a turning point, of welcoming acceptance and finally finding peace or enlightenment. I love the guitar triplet that comes in before the final chorus and repeats itself until the song’s end—a grace note, a show of strength, a ringing confirmation to look ahead and leave the past in the past.
However, it’s not only Burnett than Phillips left behind here, as Don’t Do Anything was her last recording for the label Nonesuch. From there, she sidestepped traditional means of distribution entirely, self-releasing a series of EPs (and one LP, Cameras In The Sky) as The Long Play, a subscription service available only digitally over roughly a two-year period. It was an intriguing experiment reflecting her fiercely independent status but also conveying her savvy at navigating an industry that had profoundly changed since her 1988 debut as Sam. She’d return to releasing physical albums (2013’s Push Any Button and the forthcoming World On Sticks), but she’d remain her own boss, making music on her own terms. Even if she continues quietly putting out another collection of songs every five years or so, it’s a safe bet they will not only be worth hearing but will also continue revealing new shifts in an ever-evolving, one-of-a-kind discography.
Up next: A Passion For Power.
“Little Plastic Life”:
“Watching Out Of This World”: