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 Sam Phillips, A Boot and a Shoe (Nonesuch)
by: Steve Horowitz

Sam Phillips has the kind of sleepy, sexy voice that one commonly associates with those glamorous movie stars from an earlier era. Phillips never strains for a note or rushes her delivery. She sounds cool and detached in a way that indicates she has a smoldering passion underneath that she dare not bare lest it engulf her in flames. By the time she gets to the Garbo-esque titled "I Wanted to Be Alone," Phillips has enamored the listener through her subtle phrasings and smooth inflections. But like Garbo, Phillips is not easily pigeon-holed as just a stylist. Phillips's vocal style and self-penned songs may seem superficially simple, but this is merely a strategy to evocatively suggest deeper meanings and emotions.

Consider "I Wanted to Be Alone," a tune that contains a bare minimum of lyrics sung in a flat, unaffected manner. The song begins with Marc Ribot's (Elvis Costello, Tom Waits) strummed guitar accompanied by Carla Azar's (Wendy and Lisa, Waterboys) gentle beating of a drum in a languid marching rhythm. Phillips then comes in and sings "I said I wanted to be alone" three times and then on the fourth repetition she adds "alone/alone with him." The cut then continues in the same style with the lyric slightly changed to "He said he wanted to be alone" repeated three times and then on the fourth attempt "alone/alone with her" added." The pattern continues on the next verse with the lyric now changed to "She said she wanted to be alone," then the fourth line amended to say "alone/alone with me." The love triangle and the double meaning of the lyrics have now been revealed. The characters all want to be left alone by the ones that love them and be with the ones they love. The song ends on that note, without resolving the amorous dilemma. While the nonjudgmental gender bending at the song's end may not be a shock, it is a surprise, especially in light of the fact that Phillips began her career a Christian music star (nee Leslie Phillips).

Famed producer and Phillips's husband T-Bone Burnett (Los Lobos, Roy Orbison, Counting Crows) produced this disc in his usual bare bones, expressionistic style. Using a minimum of instrumentation and clever sonic effects, Burnett showcases Phillips's vocals and songwriting talents. For example, Burnett creatively turns the first 30 seconds of "Hole in My Pocket" into a mini-masterpiece through simple technological trickery. The song begins with Ribot's guitar on one speaker and Phillips voice on the other side as she sings "My life fell through a hole in my pocket" On the next line "I lost my solitude," Burnett joins the two channels together to reinforce this notion of Phillips no longer being alone and then on the third line "I lost my balance," Burnett shifts the vocals and instrumentation (which by now has added a Azar's drumming) to create a dynamic imbalance of sound. Burnett employs this type of gimmickry throughout the disc to make the listening experience more of a treat.

Each of the 13-songs on A Boot and a Shoe offer slices of life whose stories resonate beyond the plain details provided. The tunes may be generally happy or sad, but continually suggest that life is always a mixture of both joy and sorrow, and we need to live in the uncertainty of what the future may bring. The richness of the simple language in Phillips's hands allows for many readings and interpretations of her songs.