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Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2002


Sam Phillips: 'Fan Dance'

Nonesuch, America's premier record label for modern music (Kronos Quartet, Steve Reich), has recently become a place where high-minded pop artists can make mid-career course corrections. Emmylou Harris found a sympathetic outlet for her burgeoning Gothic-country tendencies, and the label let Duncan Shiek disguise his pretty-boy image with Leonard Cohen's art-song mantle. Even Stephen Merritt, underground's answer to Cole Porter, was recently signed, and alt-country gods Wilco plan to release their long-awaited "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" on Nonesuch.

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It's the perfect place for Sam Phillips to regain her footing. After six years as a draw on the Christian rock circuit and then three flawless albums of secular, personal, baroque pop, the California singer-songwriter seemed spent. On her last album, the comparatively experimental "Omnipop" (1996), Phillips and her husband-producer T-Bone Burnett (responsible for the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack) were no longer working from instinct and inspiration.

Five years later comes "Fan Dance," the sparest, least-mannered album of her career. Though not as seductive as her 1991 masterpiece, "Cruel Inventions," or as clever as her 1994 best-seller "Martinis and Bikinis," "Fan Dance" is more than a return to form. Accompanied mainly by two guitars, her own and Marc Ribot's, she demonstrates that the tunefulness of her past work wasn't merely production-generated, as many claimed.

And the themes are as rich as the melodies. Content with her conjugal lot in life (everywhere except for the cover, she goes by the name Sam Burnett) and having transcended her disillusionment with fundamentalism, Phillips now writes songs about life's fleeting mystery with a precision and clarity that is practically Buddhist. No longer burning, yearning for love, she contemplates extinction with the same kind of intensity. "I don't have your number," she sings on "Incinerator," "I can't count to eternity."

At 36 minutes, the album is bracingly efficient. She does one song, "Wasting My Time," twice, once as a chamber piece with strings and second as a folk-rock duet with Gillian Welch; and while the lyrics are the same, the two versions seem to be about completely different things. Even "Is That Your Zebra?" an instrumental with oohs and aahs, stands on its own as a real song rather than a novelty filler. As mid-career corrections go, it's the kind of tune that usually points to a future in soundtracks, but let's hope she leaves that to her husband. Pop needs her more than the movies do.

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