Sam Phillips

Fan Dance

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Sam Phillips' best songs display an honesty and lyrical humility that's engaging, brave, and sometimes a bit startling; plenty of singer/songwriters take pleasure in wallowing in their spiritual and emotional needs in public, but few have been willing to lay themselves as open so plainly and eloquently as Phillips does on "I Need Love" or "Fighting With Fire." But Phillips and her producer/collaborator T-Bone Burnett have a gift for gussying up her songs with deliciously fractured pop-psych backdrops that add a spoonful of sugar which helps Phillips ease her medicine down the listener's ear. This approach worked beautifully on Martinis and Bikinis and Cruel Inventions, but Phillips and Burnett seemed to have taken it as far as it would go on the lovely but flawed Omnipop (It's Only a Flesh Wound Lambchop). Five years later, the pair have taken a somewhat different path on the album Fan Dance; the production is clean and open, and the arrangements are purposefully sparse and uncluttered, usually just two quiet guitars (one played by Marc Ribot, whose touch is typically flawless), bass, and drums, and the album's most elaborate production choice, a string arrangement on "Wasting My Time," is performed by a small ensemble whose performance puts the song's intimacy in even sharper focus. While many might have imagined the melodicism of Phillips' songs was a function of the production, Fan Dance makes it clear that, even in scaled-back form, her songs have just as much to say musically as they do lyrically, with the music a perfect complement to Phillips' fearless honesty (the longer one allows a line like "When we open our eyes and dream/we open our eyes" to sink in, the more you discover how much Phillips can say in a few words). And in an era where most artists seem determined to dense-pack a CD to the edges of its running time, it's a tribute to Phillips' graceful modesty that Fan Dance feels rich and fully complete at a mere 33 minutes, with considerably more to say than most albums with double the running time. With Fan Dance, Sam Phillips has made an album that proves modesty is one the rarest and most welcome virtues in pop music today.

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