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Album review: Sam Phillips, 'Solid State: Songs from the Long Play'

Greg Kot

10:55 PM CDT, August 9, 2011

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3.5 stars (out of 4)

Sam Phillips has been making mini-masterpieces of warped pop and orchestrated folk since the ‘80s. Once signed to a major label, a poor fit for an artist as assertively self-defined as she is, Phillips has since taken everything in-house and launched the most ambitious musical undertaking of her career.

In 2009-10, she offered a year-long subscription to her fans on her Web site and digitally released five EPs and a full-length album. “Solid State” (Eden Bridge Music/samphillips.com) culls 13 of those 42 songs for a CD, offering a window into a particularly fertile period of creativity for an artist who has always held herself to a high standard.

A minimalist aesthetic underlines these jewel-like tracks, but they’re not austere and they sure don’t sound like unfinished demos. Instead Phillips assigns each song exactly what it needs – a couple of guitars, a string section, keyboards, percussion – sometimes twisting and distorting these sounds into otherworldly shapes that only enhance the ambiance. Her singing is similarly exacting. She makes every word count, doling out images with precision. She sings about compromises, frailty, coping mechanisms, the tiny flaws that define a life. Her deadpan voice won’t bowl over listeners, but it’s a subtly powerful, compelling instrument; slowly, inexorably it creates a world all its own in a few minutes: the melancholy “It Doesn’t Feel Christmas,” the vaguely Eastern swirl of “Lying,” the countryish lope of “Lever Pulled Down,” the psychedelic glide of “Magic for Everybody,” the strings-and-voice chamber pop of “What it All Means.”

It’s rare for an artist entering her fourth decade to keep releasing music of such high quality, but Phillips sounds like she’s rejuvenated – and never better.

greg@gregkot.com