Not to be confused with the Sun Records boss of the same name, Sam Phillips started her career as Christian pop singer Leslie Phillips in the 1980s where she was marketed as the Christian Cyndi Lauper. Over the course of six records, she gained artistic control of her music, married producer T-Bone Burnett, shed the most overt Christian references from her work, and changed her name to Sam, and 1994’s Martinis & Bikinis established her as an artist of critical stature.
I’ll come back and cover some of Sam Phillips’ other albums at some point.
Sam Phillips Album Reviews
Martinis & Bikinis
The obvious reference point for Martinis & Bikinis is late period Beatles, as acknowledged by the concluding cover of John Lennon’s ‘Gimme Some Truth’. Phillips’ husky voice is surprisingly reminiscent of Lennon’s, while XTC’s Colin Moulding’s bass lines are squiggly and melodic in the same way as Paul McCartney’s and there are arrangement touches like backwards strings (‘I Can’t Please You’). It’s not fair, however, to write off Martinis & Bikinis as a mere Beatles knock off, though; these songs are memorable on their own terms, and Phillips’ artistic voice is convicting and real.
Rather than the trippy peace and love vibe of late period Beatles, there’s a strong undertone of anger and frustration to many of these songs, whether it’s the environmental protest of ‘Black Sky’ (“Forests raped into deserts/We won’t stop till we’re underneath a black sky”) or the personal dissatisfaction of ‘I Need Love’ (“I need love/Not some sentimental prison/I need God/Not the political Church”). This emotion is channelled into catchy choruses – it’s easy to scan down the list of songs and recall the hook line for each instantly. It’s impressive how many distinct songs Phillips’ is able to create without deviating from the verse/chorus song with trippy production formula; the only misstep is ‘Baby I Can’t Please You’, which wastes a great arrangement and melodic verse on a irritating, mantra-like chorus.
Regardless, Martinis & Bikinis is a great little record that sits in its own little musical landscape, outside of whatever else was happening in 1994, and since it’s virtually a second hand record store staple, it’s well worth picking up.
In interesting trivia, the photographs in the artwork of Martinis & Bikinis led to Phillips’ casting as a mute terrorist in Die Hard: With a Vengeance.