Catching Up with The Long Play: “Hypnotists in Paris”
True confession time: I’ve only been a member of Sam Phillips’ subscription music service, The Long Play, for about three days now. Pretty scandalous, really, when you consider that she’s been one of the true icons of my musical imagination for so long now– Fan Dance, Martinis and Bikinis, and especially A Boot and a Shoe are all seminal records for me– and that I initially responded to her Long Play plans with enthusiasm. An entire year’s worth of Sam Phillips music, done on her own terms, without any sort of meddlesome record label involvement? What’s not to love?
Well, the price tag, for one thing. $52 isn’t a bad deal by any stretch, especially when you consider her promise of five EPs and one full-length, plus a treasure trove of bonus features, but it’s a big enough chunk of change that I’ve resisted it until now, for purely economic reasons. But I caved, in the end, and I’m already glad I did. Rumor has it her new full-length– the first since Don’t Do Anything in 2008– is on its way fairly soon, and that only Long Play members get to hear it.
Until it lands, I thought I’d take a few posts to chronicle my late-to-the-party exploration of what The Long Play has offered so far. I realize that this is, on the face of it, a rather frivolous-sounding endeavor. If you’re not a subscriber, then odds are you don’t particularly care about this music; if you are a subscriber, then I don’t need to tell you how great these mini-sized albums are, or how tantalizing the prospect of a regular-sized album is. So perhaps I am preaching to the choir. But look: There’s some really great work here, from an artist who’s clearly flourishing creatively right now, perhaps more than she has in her entire career. And that great work deserves to be acknowledged.
So: EP #1. Hypnotists in Paris.
Immediately, I’m impressed with the way this music feels like not just a credible extension of Phillips’ previous work, but actually a bold, self-contained entry in her canon; I realize that the point of this entire endeavor is, on one level anyway, to allow the fans inside the creative process and see how her music develops over the course of the year, but there’s nothing about the Hypnotists set that feels like it’s an experiment or a toss-off. It is musically complete, thematically unified– a thing in and of itself, and, despite its brevity, a satisfying Sam Phillips album.
Its six songs are the fruit of a collaboration between Sam and the Section Quartet, a group she’s worked with on several of her past albums but never quite in this way: Gone from these tracks are Jay Bellerose’s thumping drums or any of the other instruments that grounded A Boot and a Shoe and Don’t Do Anything in pop and rock idioms; this one’s just strings and Sam. The feel is more of orchestral pop than anything else, which actually serves to highlight the formal perfection that has always impressed me about Phillips’ songwriting; these songs sound like they could be standards, almost.
Actually, the songs here are indeed love songs, in a sense, but not conventional ones, even though they are sometimes structured that way; Sam folds into these songs her usual concerns with mystery and truth and grace, and there’s prickly, bittersweet humor to the lyrics that makes them a bit melancholy but not ever overbearingly so; the ache isn’t as raw as it was on A Boot and a Shoe, but I dare say it’s just as vivid.
By the way, the thematic unity of this one is especially impressive given that there are some older songs reworked here. They are selected with concern for how they fit with the newer stuff, and the new arrangements and performances are anything but redundant. Hearing a new version of “Say What You Mean” is actually the biggest pleasure here, at least for me; I’ve already grown to prefer the sinister, cinematic flourishes of this new version to the more bare-bones treatment given to the original, and it’s thrilling to hear the material reworked solely on Sam’s terms– i.e., minus T-Bone Burnett, though his work with her was never anything less than excellent. There is also a reworked “I Need Love”– surely the banner song of Phillips’ entire career– that proves how resilient great songcraft can be; it’s totally different from the original, cast as a chamber pop song, but it’s no less an anthem. And then there’s “I Don’t Want to Fall in Love,” which, for me, sheds light on the whole rest of the record by embodying its not-quite-conventional take on the love song while also illustrating how effortlessly this lady could write a straight-ahead, standards-style pop song if she really wanted to.
Whether any of the new songs become Phillips classics on that level remains to be seen, of course, but everything here is excellent. I particularly love a piano ballad called “So Glad You’re Here”– sweet and vulnerable in a way her songs seldom are, but still with a tinge of something shadowy.
All to say: Great stuff all around. Wish I’d subscribed earlier, but glad to be catching up with it now. And on that note, the second installment in my Long Play catch-up will be posted in this space in a few days… stay tuned.