Graceful Event (12/07/2001)
Sam Phillips, Fan Dance (Nonesuch 2001) - After a five-year layoff, the enormously talented Sam Phillips returns with Fan Dance. Fans of the glorious Martinis & Bikinis or The Indescribable Wow will be put off - this is minimalistic Sam, working with guitarist Marc Ribot (a long-term Tom Waits collaborator) and drummer Carla Azar.
Sam's last six albums have been made with producer and husband T-Bone Burnett. Burnett recently scored big with the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, and is not afraid to go retro (listen for the miked-up banjo on "The Fan Dance").
Says Sam, "Making records is one of the most fun things that we do together, and one of the easiest for both of us. The marriage part is a lot more difficult. I don't even know how I feel about marriage. It's the paperwork, the cultural struggle, but you hope your relationship is bigger than the marriage."
Sam took five years off after her last album, the disappointing Omnipop. Admits the 39-year-old singer, "It's a big mess. There were some musical ideas, but I just didn't feel the heart of the record was there." And it certainly didn't help that her marketing team disintegrated. Says Sam, "The week it came out, the head of A&R, the head of marketing, our product manager, everybody quit the label. Omnipop sank."
Fan Dance clocks in at 33 minutes, and reminds me of out-takes to Revolver - there are some beautiful melodies, as on "Is That Your Zebra?" and "The Fan Dance" - but the album has a raw, intimate feel.
Says Sam, "I feel that when I hear a lot of records, there's no room for me as a listener. This record is not built like a stadium to present music to the largest audience possible. This record is built more like a bungalow or a salon to receive guests."
Nonesuch senior vice president David Bither is trying to expand the label, but still works within the more stark, folk-based confines of the Nonesuch history. Yet "Edge of The World" is a lovely, subdued melody, and "Wasting My Time" (with strings by Van Dyke Parks) brings to mind the house-husband period of John Lennon. And "Five Colors," with Gillian Welch on bass and backing vocals, hints at the beauty of Sam's music.
Comments Sam, "Certainly by any kind of Hollywood standard or any kind of business standards - like sales - I have failed." Continues the singer, "I wasn't trying to imitate any style, to be any certain thing. I just disconnected, went away from the culture, and tried to create a world I was interested in."
Sam tells a funny story about her young daughter. According to Sam, she and Simone were listening to Bob Dylan. "Simone hadn't heard Bob Dylan before, and she asked, 'Mommy, is that God singing?' I asked, 'Simone, why would you think that?' And she answered, 'Because his voice is funny, but it doesn't make me laugh.' I thought, Whoa, this one's gonna be a pistol."
Fan Dance is beautiful and ethereal, but ultimately disappointing. Sam Phillips is an amazing talent (and burningly brilliant songwriter), but Fan Dance is too somber for repeated listenings.
Leonard Cohen, Ten New Songs (Columbia 2001) - Now age 67, Canadian Leonard Cohen has drunk deeply from the cup of life since his first volume of poetry was published in 1956. With Ten New Songs, Cohen seeks to draw you into his refined aesthetic, with an emphasis on the voice and the words and the songs.
Like Dylan, Cohen mines the new genre of "elder pop," as a sage staring down the white tunnel of love and death. In addition to two novels and numerous volumes of poetry, Leonard Cohen has fourteen LPs to his credit. His last studio album, The Future (1992) was remixed by Trent Reznor into the soundtrack to Natural Born Killers, and resulted in some of the most compelling work of Cohen's career.
While Cohen has maintained ties with French Canada throughout his life (he was born in Montreal in 1934), the famous ladies' man retreated to a Buddhist monastery located on Mount Baldy in Los Angeles in 1993. Cohen stayed there for six years, becoming an ordained Buddhist monk in the process.
When asked, "Why did you come down?", Cohen responds, "I don't know. For the same reason I went up, which is also unclear . . . I was approaching 60, my old teacher (Sasaki Roshi) was approaching 90, so I thought it was a moment to hang with him and intensify my relationship with the community . . . I didn't know how long I'd stay. At a certain moment, it became clear that it was time to leave."
The two found themselves laying down tracks over a sparse electronic background in which there are essentially no human musicians or other colors - Bob Metzger provided guitar on "In My Secret Life," and David Campbell arranged the strings for "A Thousand Kisses Deep."
Which leaves a cultured aesthetic by a man who spent years focusing on the meaning and nuance of each word in his lyrics. You can't dissect songs like "By the Rivers Dark" or "You Have Loved Enough" - you simply have to be drawn in by Cohen's gravely voice and world-weary intonations.
As to Sharon's contribution, Cohen explains, "I came down from the mountain, and I bumped into her in Los Angeles. I hadn't seen anybody in awhile. And we always had intentions to write more together. We started writing and it became clear that a record was enfolding . . . I really feel it's Sharon's record in a certain way, because she did the music."
Cohen also believes that he has thrown off the depression that has dogged him for years, explaining, "I don't know exactly what happened. But that did lift in the past three years. It's changed a great deal. And I think this record comes out of that graceful event."
While Cohen has stepped into the spotlight of celebrity throughout his life, he lives at ease in Montreal. During a walk with another writer, he passed a handsome grey-haired woman who smiled hello without breaking stride. Cohen smiled back, and said, "See what I mean?" Asked the writer, "Do you know her?" Answered Cohen, "No," having confirmed that his fans are cool enough to leave him in peace.
And peace is what you'll find on Ten New Songs.
Suzanne Vega, Songs in Red and Gray (A&M Records 2001) - Suzanne Vega, an inventive New York-based folkie, thought she had met her life's match in producer Mitchell Froom. Alas, everything changes, and the singer now finds herself making wounded woman's pop, a kaleidoscope of sounds that opens up to the patient listener.
Suzanne separated from her husband three years ago. In going back to her roots, she returned to the Greenwich Village Songwriter's Exchange, a songwriting workshop she had attended from 1980 through 1985. Says Vega, "It seemed like a good time to get back to my strengths, which have always been my guitar and my lyrics . . . I have the freedom to go anywhere when I sing and play my acoustic guitar. I couldn't do that when I was dependent on the production."
Suzanne's high point may have been 99.9F (1992), which was followed by Nine Objects of Desire. Suzanne has a sense of resignation about her, a self-fulfilling prophesy that her man was going to leave her. When I hear lines like "Am I an afternoon's pastime?/A thing on a string/To be thrown and retrieved . . . Am I a toy on a tray?/A soft piece of play/Queen or clown for the day" (from "Machine Ballerina"), the hurt stands close to the surface.
Songs In Red and Gray was produced by Rupert Hine, who contributes a wide variety of sounds, including strings, piano, and keyboards. Suzanne's other principal collaborator is Gerry Leonard on electric guitar. Suzanne provides lead vocals and acoustic guitar throughout. Also joining her are Elizabeth Taubman on backing vocals, Mike Visceglia on bass, and Jay Bellerose and Matt Johnson on drums.
Wait for Suzanne to come to you, and you'll be rewarded by the rollicking "Last Year's Troubles," which looks back on last year's troubles with a smile and a tear.
Like the late Kirsty MacColl, Suzanne shows an edgier side on "If I Were a Weapon," balancing her airy vocals against lines like, "If I were a weapon/You said I'd be a gun/Lethal at close range I guess/With silencer and stun." And "Machine Ballerina" finds the singer questioning her fate in a sing-song lyric, balanced by a sweeping organ interlude.
- Randy Krbechek © 2001
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