There weren’t many music artists in the first half of the 90s whose work I enjoyed more than Sam Phillips. While I’d heard “Holding on to the Earth” on the radio when The Indescribable Wow was released in 1988, I didn’t add it to my collection until being blown away by her 1991 album Cruel Inventions. She completed a trifecta of close-to-perfect pop in the spring of 1994 with the Beatles-influenced Martinis and Bikinis. That summer I got to see her perform a few songs at a small festival in Washington, D.C. while visiting Greg and Katie. It was very good news when, less than a month after my wife and I returned from our honeymoon in the summer of 1996, news of a new Phillips disk dropped.
Good news until I brought it home and spun it a few times, that is.
It’s not that Omnipop (It’s Only a Flesh Wound, Lambchop) is a terrible record. It is, however, a decided drop-off from her earlier work. Many of the vocals are dour, and it feels like Phillips made a conscious decision to de-emphasize tuneful melodies. There are stylistic elements–particularly the use of a horn section–reminiscent of the late 60s, and I’ll admit they’re often used to good effect. In listening to (most of) Ominpop‘s songs this week for the first time in a good while, I recognize they’re familiar enough now to say I gave the record more chances a quarter-century ago than I remembered. It’s perhaps the case that a few are better than I initially gave them credit for then.
The album kicks off with “Entertainmen.” As the title suggests, there are multiple plays on words to be discovered (“post-humorous” and “a girl worth wading for”), as Sam tersely describes a set of damaged, and damaging, relationships.
Phillips is angry, and is letting us know. Case in point: “Plastic Is Forever.” She’s feeling alienated by technology (television in particular), and in turn she’s making music that’s at least a little alienating. The song does contain my favorite lyric on the album, though: “Pain is pleasure when it’s televised.”
One of the most appealing cuts is “Zero Zero Zero!” (which served as the title of her 1998 compilation disk). It’s got both 60s retro chic and Polynesian steel guitar, and is actually a bit of a romp–what more could one want?
Not that Phillips ever came close to a hit record, but as “Power World” fires up, one could be forgiven for thinking there’s a kernel of a single buried within. It’d greatly benefit from a more engaging chorus, though.
“Faster Pussycat to the Library!” is hands-down the best song title on the record, and may well beat out anything else from 1996. Phillips is credited with playing chamberlain in the liner notes, and this is one of the songs on which you hear it.
All the guys from R.E.M. co-wrote “Slapstick Heart,” the closer, with Phillips, although they don’t play on it. I’m a little curious to know how the collaboration came about. Again, not much melody, but there are interesting sounds.
My sense is that Omnipop‘s relative lack of positive reception precipitated an end to the relationship between Phillips and Virgin, her record label (purely a guess, but I wonder if the compilation was released simply to fulfill a contract). She’s continued recording, having released three albums on the Nonesuch label and several more on a smaller outfit over the last twenty years. I’ll confess that I haven’t given her 21st century music the level of attention it merits; perhaps I can correct that soon. You certainly can’t go wrong with any of her 1988-94 output, though.