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Music Review | Sam Phillips’s ‘Solid State’

The most common ailment amongst music critics is fifth Beatle syndrome.

Sure, there were people like Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe, who were actually the fifth and sixth members of the Beatles, historically speaking. But this is not what I mean. No, music critics have long made a party pastime of pinning the fifth-member tail on the Beatles’ donkey. When we hear an artist whose songcraft recalls that of the Beatles, our brains tell us, “This artist could’ve been in the Beatles, by Jove! There were four Beatles – this musician could’ve been the fifth one!

(I am just glad we music critics excel enough at mathematics to know that 4 is followed by 5.)

In this “could’ve been” sense, Harry Nilsson and Emitt Rhodes are two notable “fifth Beatles.” They did write decidedly Beatle-esque melodies, after all. But if every prospective “fifth Beatle” actually belonged to the Beatles, the members of the Beatles would outnumber, well … the beetles.  

The second most common ailment that afflicts music critics is the need to write long introductory paragraphs that in no way reference the record being reviewed.

Which brings me to Sam Phillips (and, eventually, the record under review), who could’ve been the Beatles’ kid sister or a fifth Beatle, time notwithstanding, since she was born in 1962. But if you listen to Phillips’ latest record, Solid State, you will not hear the colorful sounds the Beatles employed when they painted the ‘60s and made it their decade. No, whatever Beatle-esque sensibilities are present on Solid State are monochrome by comparison, and I mean this as a compliment.

It may sound odd to say so, but I see the career of Sam Phillips as something like The Wizard of Oz in reverse. Instead of transitioning from black and white to color, Phillips began her career with the colorful pop of The Indescribable Wow and gradually progressed to a more restrictive sonic palette, using restraint to make much from very little.

Not that her career actually began with The Indescribable Wow. I am making a distinction the average listener may not: She actually began her career as Leslie Phillips, a Contemporary Christian musician – a “CCM” artist – who made pop with an evangelical bent. Because of the industry’s restrictions on her creative freedom, she left that particular pasture for one with no fences. It is the post-CCM phase of her career that fascinates me the most, and since she changed her name when she launched it, I feel comfortable discussing only the career of Sam, and not Leslie as well.

But back to Solid State, which is the album under this reviewer’s musical microscope at the moment. It is hardly the kind of product a musician churns out at the prodding of a merciless recording industry. After recording for Virgin Records and Nonesuch, Phillips is free of contractual reigns, and has been flying solo – soaring, really – for a few years now. Solid State is actually a collection of songs that resulted from a project Phillips initiated all by herself in 2009 called The Long Play. Subscribers paid $52, and Phillips recorded a wealth of new music, all of it exclusive to the project, including 5 EPs and an album, among other myriad musical goodies.

It is important to emphasize that the general public could not purchase this material outside of the subscription service Phillips set up through her Web site, meaning she was essentially pioneering a form of content distribution for her most faithful followers. While Radiohead introduced the pay-what-you-want business model to the world, Phillips pioneered the pay-a-pretty-penny model, and in return she gave her listeners a musical fortune to treasure. As album prices fell across the board, Phillips insisted that music was still worth something, and her songs served as her most compelling arguments.

The songs on Solid State are indeed among the best entries from the Long Play experiment, but many of my favorites from the project do not appear here, which makes me cherish them all the more. There were just too many good songs to fit onto one record, really.

Her Beatle-esque bent, as always, is present here, but again with a more restricted palette. Instead of ambitious, kitchen sink productions, her songs are more skeletal in nature. She insists, for example, on using maracas instead of hi-hats to accompany the often muted snare drums that drive the music along. It is as if she found part of a drum kit in a closet somewhere and decided it was good enough to use as it was. This is her aesthetic – a bare bones approach that allows her perceptive lyrics to occupy center stage. In an age of bombast, Phillips insists on sonic economy.

In a way, Phillips is the Wizard behind the musical curtain, pushing buttons and pulling levers to set sounds in motion at her behest. This is most apparent in the appropriately titled song, “Lever Pulled Down.” At the chorus, the previously muted snare that served as backing percussion strikes with the force of a gunshot, as Phillips declares, “I’m a lever pulled down / I’m a flipped switch.” When that snare cracks, we believe her.

I know I haven’t really properly reviewed the record itself, but Solid State is highly recommended for fans of The Beatles, and also fans of Spoon, who are also sonic economists. I could go into detail about each and every song on the record, but I am content instead to weave a web of mystery around Sam. It suits her if you ask me. I am content to simply say, “Buy this record. For that matter, buy all of Sam’s records.” And you should be content to buy it without any questions asked.

One last thought. I wrote earlier that her career was like The Wizard of Oz in reverse. But I suppose her career is also a bit like the Beatles’ career in reverse. They began with more two-dimensional studio fare, and progressed later on to more experimental, psychedelic productions. They were expansionists, and Phillips has instead insisting on narrowing her vision. It’s like she’s been sharpening a pencil to the finest point possible – or looking for the slightest blade to make the most delicate incision. Time notwithstanding – differing artistic trajectories notwithstanding – she could’ve been a fifth Beatle. 


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[author_info]About the Author

Chad Thomas Johnston writes music reviews on Prime Parents’ Club under his column, Somewhere Over the Audio Rainbow. He is an aspiring author, sonuva’ preacha’ man, PhD-dropout, singer/songwriter, daydreaming doodler, cinemaddict, & pop-culture obsessive.Visit Chad at his subterranean, subcutaneous Interweb lair: http://chadthomasjohnston.com/, or on Twitter as @Saint_Upid.[/author_info]

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Chad Thomas Johnston is an aspiring author, sonuva’ preacha’ man, PhD-dropout, singer/songwriter, daydreaming doodler, cinemaddict, & pop-culture obsessive. He is represented by Seattle, WA-based literary agent Jenée Arthur, who is currently shopping his manuscript, The Stained Glass Kaleidoscope: Essays at Play in the Churchyard of the Mind, to major publishing houses. Chad is happily married to Rebekah Christine, and lives in Lawrence, KS with his wife and five cats. Chad and Rebekah look forward to welcoming Baby Evie into the fracas of their frantic fold in October 2011. Visit Chad at his subterranean, subcutaneous Interweb lair: http://chadthomasjohnston.com/

3 Comments

  1. Chad Thomas Johnston

    August 5, 2011 at 6:31 pm

    He was my FAVORITE Beatle, that’s who. :) I could write a book about how much I love that man’s music.

  2. Joel

    August 5, 2011 at 5:17 pm

    Which Beatle was Elliott Smith?