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Sam's Boot, Patty's Dream, and Lynn's Rose
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Seventeen years ago Leslie Phillips released The Turning (Myrrh/WORD), easily among the finest “Christian” records ever made. It was also her “swan song” to CCM. Angry and frustrated at “Christian” music’s moral hypocrisy and confining, burdensome and clumsy aesthetic, she quit making music for the choir, changed her name to “Sam,” inked a mainstream deal, began working with producer TBone Burnett (who she eventually married) and released several critically acclaimed discs, evolving into a leading light in the burgeoning smarter-than-your-average-chanteuse scene of the early ‘90s. During this season Sam made some smart, largely entertaining, very good, if at times cumbersome records, hampered perhaps only by her seeming inability to write a love song that wasn’t also (and at times too obviously) a tortured metaphor for Fundamentalism.
On A Boot and a Shoe (Nonesuch), Phillips, seems to at last to have abandoned this “Lot’s wife” approach to songwriting, and the results are spectacularly whole. Boot finds Phillips cultivating the range of possibility in her reedy alto, having found a path to discipline her always intriguing and distinctive vocal instrument, emerging on this record in particular as an exceptional singer in full control of her voice.
Less deliberate and self-conscious, the songwriting on Boot is shamelessly indebted to both Revolver-era Beatles and cabaret songsmiths like Nina Simone and Jacques Brel (who, by the way, is no longer alive and well and living in Paris). Add Phillips’ relaxed, dreamy, torchy (“as in tortured,” she jokes) saloon-singer delivery, and Boot conjures a subtle melodic intimacy and emotional immediacy out of the trace of stale coffee, cigarettes and the bitter, lingering, lonesome musks that arise from your skin in the first few moments of the first few mornings when we find ourselves awake, again and oh so painfully, alone.
Often funny, frequently heart-wrenching and always convincing, Phillips' songs are precise, powerful meditations on fidelity, betrayal, power, sex, religion, or politics. Indeed, A Boot and a Shoe exhibits a timelessness and sophistication sorely missed in today’s popular songwriting.
The only record better than Sam’s Boot this year is Impossible Dream, the fourth release from Patty Griffith (Ato Records). Griffith’s voice is pure wonder, a rare, perfect collision of wispy fragility and unparalleled power. That Griffith’s songwriting is worthy of her voice only adds to the charm. This is weak-in-the-knees good.
Your Roots are Showing
The roots and future of contemporary music are brilliantly confused on Van Lear Rose (Interscope), the latest from country legend (and Coal Miner’s Daughter) Loretta Lynn. Produced by Jack White (of the uber-hip The White Stripes), it would be easy to dismiss this as an imitation of the Rick Rubin/Johnny Cash partnership that made Cash “cool” again. Don’t. The intense, furiously-played rock and roll arrangements juxtaposed against Lynn’s honky-tonk vocals make Rose among the most exciting discs I’ve heard in years, me of The 77’s at their surly, sharp-edged best—except, of course, for the 72-year-old woman singing lead.
The Secret History of Rock & Roll is a new series of compilation discs (released by Bluebird Records in June) that is perfect for anyone interested in the evolution of American popular music. The first two volumes--The Sacred Roots of the Blues and East Virginia Blues: The Appalachian Roots of Honky Tonk--feature restorations of some of the oldest recordings in existence. Sacred Roots includes cuts from early radio preachers, traveling vocal groups, and formally-trained soloists, each suggesting cadences and rhythms that would later find their way into both Memphis blues and the black church, and then into any Jerry Lee Lewis or pre-movie Elvis rock and roll. The Appalachian disc likewise finds bluegrass pioneers like The Carter Family and the Monroe Brothers delivering an energy and intimacy suggestive of the rugged, moonshine-peddling, after-hours music that would eventually be known as “Honky Tonk,”--a music that would come to an ironic full circle in later years when sweaty-toothed, tie-loosening, platform pacing, sexual predator preachers like Jimmy Swaggart would play it even while raging against the evils of rock and roll. These discs make a fun, rewarding and very, very cool collection. Who knew learning could be so much fun?
Canadian Worship Hits the MainLine
Finally, worth noting is Rest, the latest (and exceptional) offering of genuinely intimate worship music that is carefully constructed from Canadian pastor/singer-songwriter Glen Soderholm. There is nothing manipulative or presumptive in this collection, but rather an emotional and spiritual transparency that invites his audience to join him on his journey, rather than dragging them along with musical tricks and skullduggery. Indeed, there is an honest consideration for the audience, as well as a careful, skillful thoughtfulness in Glen’s songs that is sadly rare in these days where being “good” at worship can mean big, big bucks. (I know, I know…. What the…?!?!?) Instead, Soderholm seeks to challenge and comfort appropriately and in careful measure, never playing to the expectations of his audience or exploiting their fears or emotions.
And so, if you find yourself being moved by this disc, it isn’t because you’re supposed to be moved; it’s because something honest and real is happening, and that’s a very, very good thing.
(This disc can be purchased online at www.signpostmusic.com or www.glensoderholm.com )