Catching Up with The Long Play: “Old Tin Pan”

You don’t even have to play the music to know that this is a slightly different entry in the Long Play series; the three previous releases each boasted at least one song we recognized– be it the three re-worked Sam Phillips classics on Hypnotists in Paris, the Christmas standards on Cold Dark Night, or the freshly-recorded Gilmore Girls song concluding Magic for Everybody— but that’s not the case with Old Tin Pan, a tracklisting that seems, at first glance, to be comprised entirely of new material (unless you’ve been fortunate enough to see Sam on tour in recent years; “When You’re Down” has been a concert favorite for a while now, but has never been released on a Sam Phillips record until now).

Her liner notes complicate matters significantly; as it turns out, there aren’t exactly new songs, but rather songs that were cut from Don’t Do Anything at the eleventh hour. But the plot thickens even further, literally– the songs included on Old Tin Pan have a narrative thread that unites them, offering a loose retelling of the Aimee Semple McPherson story. This all seems, at first blush, like it could potentially be problematic. Albums with a narrative focus can sometimes be a little awkward or undercooked as far as stand-alone songs go, which is particularly problematic on a six-song EP, where there really just isn’t time or space for anything resembling a full-on rock opera. The fact that these songs are, on some level, “leftovers” might also be a sign of trouble– an indicator that this one isn’t going to hold up as well as a stand-alone album when compared to the three terrific EPs that preceded it.

But of course, Phillips’ track record with the Long Play project should, by now, be more than enough to allay any fears, and indeed, Old Tin Pan is as good as any of the Long Play EPs I’ve heard thus far. (And after this, there’s only one left!) Actually, everything about it fits Phillips well, and pushes her, in subtle ways, to try new things. The story of Aimee Semple McPherson– a Christian evangelist who came to Hollywood and got tangled up in show biz– has obvious resonance with Phillips’ own story of Christian pop stardom and subsequent exile, while the trappings of pre-Depression Hollywood make for an agreeable source of inspiration for Phillips, who has always had a sort of old-timey flair that manifests itself in some jaunty little piano numbers; I’m thinking in particular of the great Fan Dance track “Edge of the World,” which is echoed in another playful piano ditty here, “Aimee’s Temple.”

That song, and a couple of others ones, take obvious inspiration from the McPherson saga, but you almost wouldn’t know it if you didn’t read Phillips’ liner notes; the two figures have such striking similarities that while Sam may have written these songs from somewhere in McPherson’s own headspace, they work just as well at telling her own story. To that end, I’m pretty wild about a song here called “I Shall Seek Thee Earnestly,” which, even more than the Christmas hymns from Cold Dark Night, seems to speak more plainly to religious themes than anything Phillips has recorded in a while. (Which is, again, not to say that her recent work has been anything less than sublime, gloriously concerned with the mysteries of grace; the language is just more direct here.) It also happens to be sort of an unusual piece of music to hear on a Sam Phillips record, too, the Section Quartet and drummer Jay Bellerose producing a hypnotic, almost trance-like sound that mirrors the lyric’s pious devotion and spiritual vigor.

My favorite thing here, though, is the closing song, “Go Alone,” an almost jazzy-sounding thing that might be the closest thing Phillips has done to a torch ballad. The lyric is even more provocative; she’s rarely commented so directly on the breakdown of her marriage, which is saying something when you consider how explicit some of the lyrics on A Boot and a Shoe seemed to be. That the song is also perfectly well in keeping with the voice of Aimee Semple McPherson is a testament to Phillips’s adept touch as a songwriter, and to the direction that Don’t Do Anything might have taken.

The remainder of the material focuses on Phillips’ chamber/pop side, as opposed to the sprightlier, more rock-oriented pop of Magic for Everybody, “When You’re Down” might warrant special mention, not just because it’s a great song that’s finally seeing the light of day but also because it marks something of a return to the sound of Hypnotists in Paris, but reveals yet another dimension to the Section Quartet’s playing, sounding more violent and tempestuous than anything on that short record. All told, though, Old Tin Pan stands on its own, and is, if anything, a particularly sophisticated and well-executed entry in the Long Play series, which I’m seriously starting to wish could last forever.


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