Catching Up with The Long Play: “Days of the One Night Stands”
In this series of Long Play posts, we’ve been discussing several of the recurring themes and ideas that have been threaded through these five Sam Phillips EPs, and indeed, through the whole of her career– in particular, the way she’s been dealing, more candidly than usual, with her faith (“I Shall Seek Thee Earnestly,” the whole of the Cold Dark Night EP) and the breakdown of her marriage (“Go On Alone,” to some extent the Hypnotists in Paris EP); different conceptions of pop music and what it means to be a pop singer, exemplified best, I think, in the wildly different approaches taken to Hypnotists and Magic for Everybody; and her ongoing wrestling match with the elusive nature of mystery and art (“Magic for Everybody”).
Now we come to the fifth and final EP, and find Phillips relinquishing– however briefly– some of these threads, holding on to others, and adding some new ones to the mix. If you want to hear her weave all of them together at once, just wait until we get to the Cameras in the Sky album– the closest she’s come to a sort of definitive, career-defining album, I’m tempted to say.
I chuckled a little bit when I realized exactly what Days of the Night Stands really is; I suppose it isn’t too strange that a series that spanned an orchestral album, a holiday album, and a concept album would also include a covers album, which is exactly what this last EP is, and with that comes to the fore another thematic thread that’s been woven– somewhat more subtly, up to this point– through this Long Play material– namely, the role of the interpretive singer, which Phillips plays adroitly on these five songs.
That she relishes the position as an interpreter of his own work has been apparent from the very first EP, which recast three of her classic songs in an entirely new light; I loved the way the more pop-oriented, chamber-quartet takes on “Say What You Mean” and “I Don’t Want to Fall in Love,” for instance, underscored the meaning of those compositions (as torch songs, basically) while also offering a very gentle subversion to how we think about love songs and “standards” to begin with. To that end, there is a new version of “Lying” on this album that is just terrific. I’ve always thought there was a big pop hit just waiting to happen, lurking somewhere in that tune, and while neither this nor the Cruel Inventions version is quite it, I do already prefer this version, a sort of folksier version with the ripping electric guitar solo replaced by spirited violin. The melody and lyric are unchanged but the entire mood of the song has been upended, not so much to change its meaning but rather to fit with the late-night, chill-out vibe Phillips wanted to capture here. It’s fascinating on that level, but mostly it’s just a lovely song, as is her long-awaited recording of “Where is Love Now,” which she wrote in the early 90s but has never recorded herself until now; it’s one of her most straightforwardly rousing ballads, and encapsulates a side of her she’s really never shown before the Long Play came int being.
The highlight of this record, for me, though, is her cover of the tremendous Tom Waits song “Green Grass,” which she’s been talking about recording forever now; I believe it was rumored, at one point, to be on Don’t Do Anything, but I’m glad she held it until now, as it fits the purposes of this EP quite nicely and also serves as a Long Play highlight. Phillips writes in her liner notes that she always felt this song should be sung by a woman, and indeed, it’s amazing how something like that can alter the nature of the song. She also does it– not too surprisingly, I suppose– something like a standard, again collaborating with the Section Quartet, and the end result is a thing of ominous, mournful beauty. It might be my favorite Phillips vocal in the whole series, yet I also find myself thinking that, now that we’ve heard it sung by a great female singer, it could potentially be revelatory to hear it done by a full-on crooner; Joe Henry is sort of the obvious choice, given that he sang on another Long Play track, but I also find myself thinking how splendidly Jarvis Cocker might handle this one.
The remaining two songs took a bit longer to sink their hooks in, but I have come to really enjoy both. There is a take on “(I Am Not Your) Stepping Stone”– recorded by both the Monkees and the Sex Pistols– that downplays the punk and the rock in favor of something much more low-key and hypnotic; there is also a pleasantly simple, sprightly take on the standard “Undecided,” which serves almost as a sort of reversal of the way Phillips took her own pop songs and made them sound like old standards on Hypnotists.
Which makes it seem, strangely enough, like a nice full-circle gesture for this wonderfully engaging series. On that note, I should say that I do plan on saying quite a bit about the Long Play album, just as soon as I pull my thoughts together; it’s a really magnificent piece of work and a rousing finale to this very fine endeavor. As for the EPs, I have no reservations about saying that, taken collectively, they represent Sam Phillips at the peak of her creative powers. That this music is destined to be heard only by a small number of people is a real shame, but I couldn’t be more optimistic about where Sam will go after this, as she really seems to be firing on all cylinders these days, as though her best work is yet to come.