Monday, December 8, 2008

Best of 2008 Album Review: Sam Phillips -- Don't Do Anything

After a day off yesterday to assess the new "Saturday Night Live" (good!), the countdown of the Best Albums of 2008 continues today. Remember, it's all building up to Tuesday's edition of Pop Culture America Primetime at 8PM Eastern on On that very special broadcast, Dave and I will take an in-depth look at the year in music and I'll unveil my full Top Ten Best of '08 List.

I can tell you right now that the Number Three entry on that list is ...

Sam Phillips with Don't Do Anything (produced by the artist herself).

By way of introduction for those who haven't had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Phillips before:

- She is not -- repeat, NOT -- the legendary Sun Records producer who discovered Elvis Presley. You can tell by the hair.

- She is a former Christian music star (had several Christian chart top tens) who was once billed as "the Christian Cyndi Lauper." Much to her distaste.

- She was the composer and performer of much of the music from the musically savvy, late, lamented "Gilmore Girls."

- She was Grammy nominated back in 1994 for her phenomenal Martinis and Bikinis album. Go get that one.

- And if there were any musical justice on this planet, I wouldn't have to get people up to speed on her resume.

Don't Do Anything is the first Sam Phillips album not to feature her ex-husband and (now) former producer T-Bone Burnette -- though he does get a "thank you" in the album's credits. So the natural temptation is to view it as a statement of independence, a kiss-off to a former love, an artistic spreading of the wings.

But Sam is far too interesting and idiosyncratic to plod into such an obvious and limiting trap.

She pays what could be interpreted as a little lip service to the idea, wondering "did you really love me?" on "Another Song." But she also tells us right off the bat that there will be "No Explanations." And on the album's title track -- one of the sharpest, wittiest love songs ever -- she makes light of the whole notion.

"I love you," she coos, "when you don't do anything." It starts off as a sweet idea, loving the person, not what they can do for you. But it quickly turns as she admires the object of her affection most when he's useless, when he doesn't say anything, when he doesn't think anything, when he doesn't, you know, lie. What starts as "You don't have to do anything, sweetie," becomes "No, seriously, dude, do NOT do anything." And all the while, her electric guitar crackles and sputters low in the mix, like a subconscious reminder of just why the relationship is better when it's inert.

From there, she indulges in the fulfillment promised by advertising in her "Little Plastic Life" and imagines the next explosive emotional collision in "My Career in Chemistry." That imagination, both fanciful and ominous -- usually both at the same time -- informs the lyrical content throughout the rest of the set.

Meanwhile, the music also promises and threatens in a Brechtian cabaret of desires and fears. Dark waltzes and wise-but-foolish torch songs are the order of the day. Guitars and drums are joined by strings and banjos interwoven in snaky tapestries. Songs crunch along, rumbling with danger that echoes in lyrics like the one that opens "Signal":

"The streets are so dark at night
Now they stay dark when it's light"

And as yet another perilous relationship unfolds, the album suggests that it might be a break-up record after all, albeit an aggressively expressionistic break-up album. Relationships are rarely static -- and almost never inert the way she wishes on the title tune: they're usually either in the process of becoming, or growing, or in the process of ending. As Sam sits in the bath on the cover of Don't Do Anything, she could be melting. Or coalescing.

One things certain: on Don't Do Anything, she's doing something. Something pretty amazing.

And she's doing something in this clip from an interview. Watch her speak and perform "Little Plastic Life."

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