Sam Phillips, Martinis & Bikinis

Holly George-Warren

By Holly George-Warren

on 05.18.11 in Reviews

Martinis & Bikinis

Sam Phillips

The exquisite Martinis and Bikinis brought former Christian pop star Sam Phillips as close as she would come to stardom, earning her a 1994 Grammy nomination for Best Female Rock performance for the luminous "Baby I Can't Please You." Then-husband T Bone Burnett crafted a template redolent of mid-to-late era Beatles, spare rockabilly and, with Van Dyke Parks scoring the strings, chamber pop. Burnett's wide-ranging production perfectly complements Phillips's classic, lyrically-rich songcraft, always making sure to showcase her burnished alto, whether as a grainy, plaintive plea buttressed by dense harmonies on "I Need Love," an emotive croon on the harpsichord-driven opener "Love and Kisses," or an echo-laden howl on the Tom Waits-in-a-wind-tunnel cover of John Lennon's "Gimme Some Truth."

As close as the stunning singer would come to stardom

To assist, Burnett cast a dream team of tasteful melodic rock sidemen, including XTC's Colin Moulding on bass, R.E.M.'s Peter Buck on jangly electric, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' Benmont Tench on keyboards. The melodies and arrangements on Martinis and Bikinis are so intoxicating, in fact, it's easy to lose track of Phillips's lyrical gifts. Not many writers would risk the unhip boldness of singing "I need God, not the political church" ("I Need Love"), and few possess the poetic skill to pen sparkling gems like "Together we make the perfect question/ There's never enough to go around/ It's a cup with a hole and the love pours on the ground" ("Wheel of the Broken Voice").

Martinis and Bikinis opened the door to Hollywood for Phillips: a plum gig scoring the hit TV show Gilmore Girls and an acting stint as the mute assassin in Die Hard With a Vengeance. Seventeen years later, on this timeless work, Phillips continues to slay with her stunning songwriting and voice.