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
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.