To call the career of Sam Phillips a varied one is a colossal understatement. The singer and songwriter born Leslie Ann Phillips has played a mute terrorist opposite Bruce Willis, placed several singles in the contemporary Christian Top 10, and today can be found scoring the exploits of a headstrong dancer and her imperious mother-in-law on ABC Family’s drama Bunheads. Though Phillips has hardly slowed down in the intervening years, fans still hold close the creative period she shared with then-husband T Bone Burnett beginning in the late 1980s and continuing through the next decade. Phillips’ third secular rock album, 1994’s Martinis & Bikinis, may still be her strongest statement yet on record, and it’s just received a loving, deluxe treatment from the folks at Omnivore Recordings (OVCD-24, 2012).
Martinis & Bikinis was the sound of a songwriter coming into her own, aided by sympathetic production and a crack team of musicians. It built on the eclectic sound of its predecessors, but placed a razor-sharp aural focus on the sounds of the late sixties, and in particular, The Beatles. Yet Phillips was the rare artist who could channel her influences while avoiding outright pastiche. The sonic signature of Martinis & Bikinis owes a great debt to the sounds pioneered by the Fab Four (and even more specifically, though not exclusively, the songs of John Lennon) from 1966’s Revolver on.
Why would an exceedingly original artist like Phillips choose to pay such clear homage to icons of the past? Why not? It’s difficult (certainly for this writer!) to argue with the assertion that the mid- to late-1960s was the most consistently creative, fertile and fascinating time for popular music in the last half of the century. Yes, the form of expression was different. But in John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Brian Wilson, and Bob Dylan, pop and rock music finally found an answer to the greats of the first part of the century: George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein, and so on. Like that earlier generation, those sixties writers created enduring songs that would be performed and recorded well into the next century. Phillips’s melodies aren’t as effortless as her forebears, her lyrics not as direct (though their cryptic quality may be an essential part of the Phillips mystique) – but Martinis, all the same, is a richly rewarding listen that deepens with each play. Why wouldn’t an artist want to play on that playground? To capture even a fraction of the same creative frisson as The Beatles is no small accomplishment.
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From the sweet appetizer of “Love and Kisses” on (“God will grant us all our wishes…martinis and bikinis for our friends”), Phillips and Burnett indulged a world of big echo, reverb, harpischord and exotic sitar-like sounds to create a record like no other in 1994. That same year, Green Day unleashed Dookie, Jeff Buckley found a moment of Grace, and Kurt Cobain died. (It was also the year that Paul, George and Ringo reunited for some new music.) Surely Mr. Lennon would have approved at Phillips and Burnett’s flying in the face of what would have been expected during that heady time.
So while “Taxman,” “Getting Better” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” may have been among the touchstones, Phillips’ personal, edgy lyrics take her material in different directions. Martinis & Bikinis is largely uncompromising but has enough pop flourishes to win over even the most hard-hearted. The most overt tributes may be via “Same Rain” and the baroque “Strawberry Road,” which even take titular cues from Beatles songs. The hypnotic “Baby, I Can’t Please You” (“I know you say love when you mean control/You buy the truth and your heart is cold/So you live in shadows…”) complements the heaviness of the lyric with Van Dyke Parks’ psychedelic string arrangement. From the Indian-inspired intro to the fadeout, God is in the details of this irresistible song. Co-produced by Colin Moulding, it boasts one of the most melodic, radio-friendly hooks on the entire album. Just as good is “I Need Love,” a perfect, harmony-laden jangle-pop opus, replete with chiming guitars. Just try to keep your hands from clapping!
On the other end of the spectrum, searing, jagged guitars bring out the darkness in “Circle of Fire” (“Fingers crying for you/Sleeping on your doorstep for the proof/We love ghosts we want to see through/The blood and bones that hide us from the truth”) with its impressionistic lyrical imagery. The track rightfully netted Phillips a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Vocal. Phillips is tough and scathing on the ironically-titled “Same Changes,” co-written with Burnett, but she’s also prescient. They could have been writing of today, not nearly twenty years ago: “The camera angles and the name campaigns/The stare cuts and the latest extremes/The way we sell ourselves, the way we spend our greed/How long it takes to hear our dreams…” The George Harrison-esque guitar underlines how little changed between 1966 and 1994, and now between 1994 and the present day.
The sonic palette is actually quite diverse despite the Beatles influences. A clattering, spare, primitive soundscape enhances the disturbing “We Won’t Stop,” while a distorted rockabilly vibe permeates “Wheel of the Broken Voice.” Phillips’ tone in the song is intensely personal, even if the lyrics refuse to give everything away: “Silence and rage, the scars of a daughter/He gave me the knife/I held it in deep water…”
All told, it’s clear to see why John Lennon’s solo “Gimme Some Truth” was chosen to cap this singular album. Its lyrical reference to “Tricky Dicky” may have been in the past by 1994, but the anger and honesty in the song haven’t been dimmed by age. Aiding Phillips and Burnett on the album was a stellar cast of sidemen including R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, Heartbreaker Benmont Tench, XTC’s Colin Moulding, Marc Ribot (Tom Waits, John Zorn) and Jerry Scheff (Elvis Presley’s TCB Band); all make their presence felt, but the tracks cohere as if the work of one band. (The core band is credited as Burnett, Scheff, Moulding, Mickey Curry and David Mansfield.)
Omnivore’s reissue, produced by Phillips herself with Cheryl Pawelski and Tom DeSavia, is bolstered by the inclusion of four bonus tracks. A remix of “Fighting with Fire” was first issued on the artist’s Zero Zero Zero compilation in 1998; it de-emphasizes the percussion that defines the original track, bringing the guitar to the fore. The other tracks are previously unissued, latter-day reworkings of three of the album’s songs. On “I Need Love,” Phillips’ voice is raspier, and more lived-in, but the new string quartet arrangement (handled ably by The Section Quartet) adds another dimension to the song while still allowing its bright melody to glisten. The reworked “Black Sky” is fine, but “Strawberry Road,” in particular, sounds wholly reinvented in its new, stripped-down setting with just guitar, bass, piano, drums and string quartet.
Gavin Lurssen and Reuben Cohen have remastered the album, and Phillips supplies a short new introduction. Full lyrics are also reprinted. Though some of the most au courant sounds of the 1990s haven’t aged gracefully, Sam Phillips’ Martinis & Bikinis remains a timeless listen. Its tribute to a time when anything was possible in music makes it still relevant today.