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Home » Vinyl Tap: Sam Phillips – The Indescribable Wow; Cruel Inventions; Martinis and Bikinis

Vinyl Tap: Sam Phillips – The Indescribable Wow; Cruel Inventions; Martinis and Bikinis

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I get a new turntable and dust off some old records. Vinyl Tap #30:

No, not the Sun Records one. But the Sam Phillips we’re talking about is outwardly sunny on her 1988 record, The Indescribable Wow. This unabashed pop masterwork, Phillips’ first secular release after a time as a Christian rock artist under the name Leslie Phillips, does indeed wow 'em musically with ‘60s girl-group and folk-rock appeal merged with ear-candy melodies and harmonies.

Lyrically, incisively-expressed poignancy and self-doubt, usually centering on love gone wrong or relationships gone on too long, emerges amid the smart popcraft. “When faith went blind she found the truth/but lost her nerve,” Phillips declares in “She Can’t Tell Time.” And whatever abstract philosophic corner she paints herself into, Phillips walks on eggshells with more delicate fragility each time she makes her way back to a human touch, to that irrational pull to the “The Flame” with which she bobs — “Why do I dance so close to you?” — and weaves: “When fires rise the shadows fall/Over the edges where we crawl…”

Indeed, Phillips doesn’t merely want to fall in love with the idea of love, or just "be in love with love" (“I Don’t Want to Fall In Love”), but she does realize the real thing is a shaky proposition, and if attained, prone to a delusion or two poking through the threadbare grandeur.

    Trying to hold on to the earth
    Holding on for what it's worth.

    I've got a long black Cadillac
    Marble hot tub in the back
    Champagne waterfall
    Solid gold question mark twenty feet tall.

In marked and darker contrast, Cruel Inventions' striking but often disturbing imagery comprises no proportionate twenty-foot-tall answers. Though also, like Wow, produced by Phillips' husband T-Bone Burnett (and aided here and there by such luminaries as Elvis Costello and Van Dyke Parks), this 1991 release not only offers less salvation and solace throughout its sonic gravitas, instrumental sparseness, and Phillips’ de-Laupered lower and sultry vocal register, it kicks up the vulnerability and trepidation a few notches, sweeping up some psychological and societal ills along with the interpersonal ones.

Even the moody infectiousness that wouldn’t be out of place on Wow bites back. The hooky-as-hell title song talks of dying dreams and bleak prospects in “a world of elevators with music like magazines" where the beat generation all departed on the morning train and "left me at the station/Breathing dust from hopeless rain." In the hypnotic and otherwise lovely “Standing Still,” the dance floor becomes a place for “thinking I‘m standing still” and where “I want them to think I’m dead.” And the humor and wordplay in “Now I Can’t Find The Door” — recalling a Chrissie Hynde-like bittersweet where's-my-sandy-beach timbre — becomes free-floating apprehension with the recollection that “Love is what I leave for.”

These are not the same tuneful Phillips ditties you hear now and then as incidental music throughout The Gilmore Girls. Furthermore, the cryptically elliptic noir of “black Niagara of control spilling down to culture mock” extends throughout Inventions even to some shadowy high-contrast cinematic sleeve photos (Phillips’ Garbo-mannered femme-fatalistic looks even landed her a Die Hard role).

Inventions' thematic irrationality, imbalance, emotional paralysis, and cosmic discombobulating in “tripping over gravity” abound in a hopeless state: the sweetness and light of the title song is belied by the exercise in futility that we can “Un-invent the wheel of endless greed.” Moreover, in the propulsive “Raised on Promises,” there’s little refuge to be had in retreats “to the furnace for shade to the dust for a drink / Logic’s mad and shame doesn’t care what you think… It’s only a phantom that you fathom.”

In the gorgeously eerie “Private Storm,” the mercurial artist warns that whatever plot of land you stake out is little more than shifting sand and dirt, sure to disturb whatever metaphoric mental breadcrumbs are painstakingly left behind:

    No warning the ground pulls out from underneath
    We tiptoe through air until we see the blood on their teeth.

    Time doesn’t heal, the scars turn into wounds
    As we walk lightly silent screams in the storm.

A reassuring new dawn and an anticipatory glimmer does emerge, however, in the last lines of Inventions' last song, “Where the Colors Don’t Go,” in which Phillips ultimately discloses “I want your eyes to color my world/And see your endless longing.” Buoyed by Van Dyke Parks' orchestral arrangement, the forthright punch-up and fade-out suggests “Penny Lane” and foreshadows the Beatle-sonic nip-and-tuck of Phillips’ next album, Martinis and Bikinis.

A splendid time seems to be guaranteed for all: “Come and join the dream that never ends,“ the 1994 album cordially invites; “God will grant us all our wishes/Martinis and Bikinis for our friends.” On top of the Fab Four flourishes, the shaken-up and stirring Martinis also comes with a distinctive dose of solo Lennon thrown in for good measures, some song structure, intonation, and upfront blisters-on-me-fingers guitar. And though it doesn’t come to a full boil, a simmering, seething primal-reverb cover of “Gimme Some Truth” is as effectively pointed as the original.

T-Bone Burnett again produces, as Van Dyke Parks gets a little more work here with aural auras of George Martin’s knob-twirling wizardry groove-by-groove with chunky-style White Album wallops. Though this is truly an overarching Phillips effort, especially in lyrical content and melodic surety, the musical nuances and intimations may evoke what a true songwriting collaboration might have sounded like from Lennon, McCartney and Harrison together. Or give you ideas of what, say, “She’s A Woman” might have sounded like if written for Revolver.

“I got myself so tightly wound I couldn’t breathe/I could feel the fire burning underneath,” Phillips avers in “Signposts,” and you might think she is referring to a little too much self-absorption in The Indescribable Wow and the edgy restlessness in Cruel Inventions. Inspired by the realization that “I need love, not some sentimental prison/I need God, not the political church” (the lilting Harrison-tinged “I Need Love”), and by such ruminations as “The Same Rain” falling on “the holy man…the liar’s hand…and me,” Phillips comprises Martinis as indeed a logical extension of wanting and needing to give in to that rudderless wanderlust, that inclination to get outside yourself and explore other psychological and philosophic worlds, other societal and environmental perspectives. As she says in "Signposts," "I wanted to get lost and love the questions there/Beauty and the truth I could breathe like air/Then I finally found the signposts in a strange land.”

From the signposts for personal accusations — “You try to tell the world how it should spin/But you live in terror with the hollow men” (“Baby I Can’t Please You”) — to the portentous “Black Sky’s” indictment of “diggers, drillers, and sellers” stealing away the future, Martinis' all-embracing concerns may not constitute all the right approaches, but it does mark a self-assurance and confidence in Phillips that was lacking one or two albums previous. Consider the assertions made in the exquisite McCartney-esque “Strawberry Road”:

    The strawberry road
    Where the dream fades
    Is down between our longing and desire,
    The strawberry road
    Where our hearts break into love.

    You censor longing and organize beauty
    Because you’re afraid
    You want it more than oxygen or light.

    You can’t get there with your morals
    Or without love
    Lie down with me
    The rules aren’t always right.

The singer who was once too busy trying to hold on to the earth and who stated “Love is what I leave for” is starting down that road “Where our hearts break into love.” Now that's an indescribable wow. Martinis and Bikinis all around!

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch

  • http://lookingcloser.org Jeffrey Overstreet

    Gordon,

    Imagine my surprise to discover your thoughtful review of one of my all-time favorite albums this morning. I haven’t seen any mention of this record for many years, and yet it still gets a lot of play at my house. Thanks for taking the time to reflect on it.

    Jeffrey Overstreet

  • http://www.gohah.blogspot.com Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Jefffrey: Thanks for the comment. It was great to listen to these albums again, and my first inclination to review only one quickly expanded into three when I couldn’t make a decision–they are all so great and yet distinct from each other. And Phillips seems so often overlooked, I think she deserved a wider scope. I’ll be playing these for awhile, and playing catch-up on some newer works.

  • http://www.gilmorememories.com Elise

    I discovered Sam Phillips on Gilmore Girls. I bought Martinis and Bikinis 4 years ago and love it. But my favourite album has to be Indescribable Wow. I bought it use don eBay last spring. I love it!

  • http://www.gohah.blogspot.com Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Elise–Thanks for the comment. “Indescribable Wow” is even more a part of me now: my car tape player just ate it but won’t spit it out.