Album of the Week, January 18: Martinis & Bikinis by Sam Phillips

PhillipsINeedLoveLeslie Phillips began her signing career doing backup work for a number of contemporary Christian singers. Using her music to explore her personal faith and deal with some family strife, she began a solo career on Myrrh records, quickly becoming a sensation. After three very successful albums, she teamed with roots pop producer T Bone Burnett for The Turning, a prophetic title. Tiring of the right-wing activism and frequent hypocrisy of the Christian music industry, she decided to pursue a more traditional pop career. With Burnett’s help, she landed a deal with Virgin; wanting to distance herself from the first phase of her career, she adopted a childhood nickname and began recording as Sam Phillips. After two critically acclaimed albums — between which she and Burnett married — she took stock of her career and decided to get more serious. Blending the themes of faith and responsibility from her early work with her smart, off-kilter pop and a desire to sing about deeper issues, she entered the studio with Burnett and turned out her masterpiece.

Title Martinis & Bikinis
Act Sam Phillips
Label Virgin Release Date March 8, 1994
Producer T Bone Burnett
U.S. Chart  182 U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Love and Kisses
  2. Signposts
  3. Same Rain
  4. Baby, I Can’t Please You
  5. Circle of Fire
  6. Strawberry Road
  7. When I Fall
  8. Same Changes
  9. Black Sky
  10. Fighting With Fire
  11. I Need Love
  12. Wheel of the Broken Voice
  13. Gimme Some Truth

Martinis & Bikinis clearly draws influence from the Beatles and from the power pop movement of the early 70s. With a clear sonic palette, chiming guitars, open musical spaces, and her crisp, distinctive voice, Phillips crafted a song cycle about the perils and potential of modern life. Burnett brought in an all-star cast to support the songs, building a smart, potent backdrop.

Things open with a charming statement of purpose. Love and Kisses clocks in under a minute, quickly looking at the values that drive the nation and posing the implied question: Can we do better? Signposts builds neatly on this question, warning that there are perils everywhere but the way is clear if one looks carefully. Same Rain wraps up this opening trilogy with a biting look at the artificial differences we cling to as we all try to make the best of things. Throughout, Phillips is in especially fine voice; she chimes, soars, whispers, smirks, winks, and declaims by turns, making the most of the lyrics while never overreaching.

Baby I Can’t Please You is a tragic love song, an ode to a doomed relationship. It’s a smart break in the serious nature of the album yet touches on similar themes in a more personal and intimate way. Circle of Fire is an elliptical story of betrayal, building nicely on Baby while enlarging the scope again. It’s a nice one-two punch that adds to the emotional heft of the album. Strawberry Road is a very direct Beatles nod with a distinct paisley underground vibe. The promise of the strawberry fields is long gone, however, as the journey down the road from them has taken us to darker places. Phillips offers hope, however, with love looming as a redemptive force. It’s a smart conceit, carried out with an especially aching vocal.

When I Fall is one of Phillips’ finest moments. A soaring, swirling love song, it picks up the promise of Strawberry Road and promises that love offers personal strength in a dark world. Both romantic and optimistic, it’s a wonderful song.

With Same Changes, Phillips hearkens back to the opening trilogy, noting that without intention from people dedicated to making the world better, the cycles simply repeat. Fighting With Fire is a more direct condemnation of those who use their power with greed rather than compassion. Phillips manages to offer some sympathy for the forces that makes those people who they are, however, adding a layer of complexity that fits the overall tone of the album well. She wraps up this trio with Black Sky, a warning of where we wind up if we don’t strive for positive change. It’s another powerful set of songs that ponders without preaching, offering cautious optimism in the face of dark reality.

I Need Love is another mini-masterpiece. A direct cry for the one thing Phillips offers as a force of salvation and redemption, it offers all the kinds of love as the blended path of hope. It’s a beautiful, compelling anthem and one of her finest vocal performances on record.

Wheel of the Broken Voice questions our ability to follow that path, bringing back the doubts and darker moments of the album in a brief, compelling narrative. To counteract those doubts and bring the cycle to a close, Phillips takes a risk — she covers John Lennon’s Gimme Some Truth. With a very less-is-more approach and a dry but evocative vocal, she manages to take that classic and make it her own, just enough to let his demanding lyrics provide an antidote and a way forward. Given the musical setting she and Burnett have crafted, it’s a good fit, and the execution is spot on, wrapping up this musical journey with a ray of light.

FURTHER LISTENING: Sam Phillips has pursued an idiosyncratic path with her art, taking a number of musical detours but always leading with her charming, compelling voice. The Turning, while technically part of her Christian career, reads more like a precursor to Martinis, and has been repackaged and re-released under her later name. While not as subtle as later work, it’s solid. All four Virgin albums have something wonderful to offer. The Indescribable Wow is a lovely set of pop gems, very consistent but never quite brilliant. Cruel Intentions has the brilliance, but lacks the consistency, sometimes stumbling over its own ambition. After Martinis, Phillips got even more experimental with Omnipop, another somewhat frustrating set with some true wonders along the way. Zero Zero Zero is a pretty solid overview of this catalog, missing a couple of great tracks but providing a nice summary of Phillips’ most prolific period. After two fairly minimalist but engaging albums for Nonesuch, Phillips and Burnett split up. She has released two more nice albums and launched an online music service, continuing to provide smart, independent pop.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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