Sam Phillips sings torch songs: Her imagistic lyrics crackle with flames, incinerators and heat, and they tell succinct tales of tortured emotions and of getting burned by love.
"I detected fire in myself before the flame that burned it all to the ground," she sings on the recent
Don't Do Anything.
In the third chapter of her career, Phillips has become a master of resignation and of terse, poetic details. She began recording for Christian labels in the mid-'80s under her given-name, Leslie Phillips; then, with the help of her producer/husband T Bone Burnett, she turned to baroque pop in a series of acclaimed albums, including the aptly titled
Then, with 2001's
she stripped away the elaborate settings and ended up reinventing herself again.
"T Bone and I had worked on lots of records with lots of overdubs and focusing on production, and we both were craving to do records that were more performance-oriented than production-oriented," Phillips says, on the phone just before a show in Michigan. The result was a sophisticated confluence of Kurt Weill, Tom Waits and late-period Marianne Faithfull, without any florid excesses.
Don't Do Anything
is the first album that Phillips, now divorced from Burnett, produced herself. It's edgier and a bit more electric (but no less eclectic) than her prior album, 2004's
A Boot And A Shoe.
Phillips calls it "buoyant," which could seem ironic given that one of its keynotes is the line "Before you go down, you write another song."
But the album still celebrates and shares the joyful catharsis that music can provide, something Phillips depicts, literally, in "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us," which she was proud to have Robert Plant and Alison Krauss recently cover.
"I'm happy to have a third act," she says. "I feel like I'm a late bloomer. I feel I relate a little bit more to, although I'm not comparing myself with, Henry Miller, who started really writing his style in his 50s and on up. I feel like I've just arrived somewhere, and I'd like to stay here a while."