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Grace under fire

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June 3, 2008

Sam Phillips

Don’t Do Anything (Nonesuch)

ESSENTIAL "No Explanations"

Anyone who rues the scarcity of smart, serious pop music for grown-ups should snap up the entire Sam Phillips catalog. On second thought, skip "Omnipop." But don't miss Phillips's splendid new effort, "Don't Do Anything," a collection that dances in her signature mystery space between darkness and light with strange grace, emotional candor, and winsome hooks.

"I thought if he understood/ He wouldn't treat me this way" goes the album's opening salvo, and it's hard not to read between the lines into Phillips's split from her husband and longtime collaborator, T Bone Burnett. This is the first Sam Phillips album not produced by Burnett; the artist herself has taken over at the helm, and she has learned well.

After two spare, atmospheric cabaret albums, "Don't Do Anything" is a return to a fleshed-out, and endlessly imaginative, band sound. On the haunting lead track, "No Explanations," Phillips's poised melody rides a fearsome jumble of hand drums and fuzzed-out electric guitar, and similar collisions of dissonance and delicacy colors the collection.

Her love affair with Beatles-esque pop resurfaces in the title track, "My Career in Chemistry," and "Flowers Up." Meanwhile, the earthy chanteuse familiar from Phillips's recent records emerges on ominous, waltzing "Signal"; dapper "Can't Come Down"; and "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us." The latter song was a forlorn dirge in the hands of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, who recorded it for last year's "Raising Sand."

But it's a saucy celebration as sung by the woman who hit bottom, heard the call, and penned this battle cry: "The sight of my heart has left me again/ But I hear music up above." [Joan Anderman]

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