Sam Phillips's voice hasn't changed in more than a decade--she always beautifully balances weariness and tenderness, grit and melody, sultriness and catchiness. Her music, however, has grown increasingly sophisticated and less intimate over the years, set in heavily textured and sometimes trendy arrangements by Phillips and her husband, producer T-Bone Burnett. Fan Dance (Nonesuch), her first new album in five years, is a retreat from all that. It's small in many ways: it's only 33 minutes long, and the instrumentation consists mostly of guitars, bass, and occasional keyboards. Full-kit drumming appears on only four of the twelve tunes; "Wasting My Time" is just vocals and a spare but arresting three-cello arrangement by Van Dyke Parks. For the same reasons, though, Fan Dance rates as her most confrontational collection--her voice is right out front at all times, exposing the lyrics to as much scrutiny as a listener is inclined to give them. They're on the elliptical side, but there's a recurring examination of memory and dreams, of what's real and what's imagined. In "Taking Pictures" she sings, "When I take a picture of the city it disappears / It's only a photograph / The city is gone / The places I go are never there," and "How to Dream" begins, "When we open our eyes and dream / We open our eyes." The uncluttered setting also highlights Phillips's honey-dipped dagger of a voice and her elegant, irresistible hooks, which unfurl here at a delicious crawl. The record features tasteful support by guitarist Marc Ribot and fellow singer Gillian Welch, among others, but here Phillips will perform solo. Wednesday, November 14, 7:30 PM, Park West, 322 W. Armitage; 773-929-5959 or 312-559-1212.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Wilson.