Catching Up with The Long Play: “Magic for Everybody”

I’ve been making up for lost time, spending many of my listening hours catching up on Sam Phillips’ subscription music service The Long Play, and blogging my way through each of the five EPs– and, as of last Saturday, there’s a full-length album, Long Play capper Cameras in the Sky, that’s really terrific; a full review of that will come once I’ve made it through these EP catch-ups. (And yes, I confess to some cheating here: I’ve still not listened to the final two EPs, having promised myself not to move ahead until the blog entry is up, but I couldn’t help myself with the prospect of the first Sam Phillips full-length this side of Don’t Do Anything in 2008).

Actually, I have to confess to a second thing, as well. Really, I could’ve/should’ve reviewed the third EP in the series last year when it released. This is the one and only Long Play offering that was made available to the general public, posted to iTunes though, alas, not made available as a physical CD or record. And in that regard, Magic for Everybody is aptly named: This one is, indeed, for everybody.

And that’s not the only part of the title that holds true. This is Sam in full on mischief-maker mode, applying her entire repertoire of smoke and mirrors and parlor tricks to a set of pop songs that sparkle with real magic. In a way, I think each of the three EPs I’ve covered thus far has been about showing a different side of Sam Phillips the pop songwriter– Hypnotists positioned her melodic gifts within something of a classicist/orchestral pop setting, sans drums and guitar, while Cold Dark Night was a quirky take on standards, and originals that might as well be standards. Magic for Everybody is a full-on fireworks show, though– Sam Phillips pulling out all the stops for what might be the most whimsical and enticing five-song run she’s ever recorded.

You think I’m kidding, but the sense of playfulness here– and the precision with which she stacks these songs with sounds and harmonies and irresistible hooks– makes this one pure dynamite. The title track is sort of a flirty little pop number, one of two or three tracks here that wears the artist’s Beatles fascination proudly but subverts it with a snappy, pyrotechnic sound that’s all her own. This one belongs in the long line of Sam Phillips songs that feels like a collaboration between singer and drummer– Jay Bellerose lends a whole extra dimension to so many of her tracks– and it’s also another one of her artist’s manifestos, a song about exploration and mystery and grace that is particularly profound given Phillips’ dramatic experience as a former Christian pop star. The lyric is an anthem, a banner song that summarizes her career in the same way as “I Need Love” and “Five Colors” before it: “Don’t let perfect make you blind / To this beautiful world / Don’t erase your crooked lines / Take your mistakes and come with me.” Now imagine that as a sing-along and you’re getting a hint of just how brilliant this stuff is.

And that’s not even the best song here. The opener, “Always Merry and Bright,” is a song quite unlike anything else Sam has done. (Well, there’s one song that’s on the same plane, but it was recorded after the fact; we’ll come to that when we come to Cameras in the Sky). Recorded with the cinematic swell of the Section Quartet and hand percussion from Bellerose– the man can make shaking a tambourine sound like the most ingenious, musical act in the world– it’s a pop song in the classical sense, elegant and stately and reminding me of something Richard Hawley could have put on Lady’s Bridge. And the lyric is just perfect in its pungent bittersweetness.

The whole set is great; there’s a flirty little tease of a song called “Trouble,” and there’s a number that I’m almost tempted to call a rocker, if only for its rowdy sense of energy, called “Lever Pulled Down”– another pitch-perfect pop song with energy to burn. There is also a gorgeous, sparkling take on “Tell Her What She Wants to Know,” originally written when Phillips was doing the Gilmore Girls music.

My final take? There are weightier, more exploratory and profound Sam Phillips records than this, but as a collection of crack singles, this thing is tops– fun and playful and with a sense of mischief, but far from frivolous or throwaway. Actually, as a recordmaker, Sam has never sounded so confident in her craft (though again, I reserve the right to change my mind about that when we get to Cameras).

Old Tin Pan is next.

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