TERRY GROSS, host:
Sam Phillips - not the Sun Records producer, but the California singer-songwriter - has been making albums since the 1980s. Her voice may be best-known for her background music for the TV series "Gilmore Girls." Recently, she's taking to releasing her music in digital-only form, without going through a record company. The new release, "Solid State," is an actual, physical compact disc that collects a sampling of Phillips' digital music.
Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. SAM PHILLIPS (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) Tell me I can take. Tell me I want to. Tell me I can keep it all straight this time. No wanting you, our secrets align, and pulling us out of our well-thought-out lives.
KEN TUCKER: Sam Phillips possesses a distinctive voice, with a chalky plaintiveness and a slight nasality that only increases her intimate, confiding tone. The thing is, she's not much of a confessional songwriter. I was reminded of this as I listened to "Solid State" and heard her direct her thoughts outward, crafting music that advises people to be honest with each other, to locate the magic in everyday life, to generally look around you instead of navel-gazing.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. PHILLIPS: (Singing) You've got to leave what's gone behind you. You've kept yourself down for way too long. In the weather floats down, excuses that we would to turn the power back on.
If you don't look around, you'll never know. If you don't step up, you'll never know. If you don't jump up, you'll never know. And you'll never find another like me.
Satan's like an old piano roll, plays my heart the same way each time. A broken circle smoothes out and becomes the road for every piece of life that I can find. If you don't look around, you'll never know. If you don't step up, you'll never know. If you don't jump up you'll never know. And you'll never find another like me.
TUCKER: Phillips has had a dodgy relationship with the music industry -which is to say, it's never been of much use to her. Her best early album, 1994's "Martinis and Bikinis," didn't receive the exposure it deserved. And the kind of sonic experimentation she likes to conduct is not the sort of commercial work that results in the tidy packaging of an image and hit singles. Her long and fruitful work scoring and performing music for the "Gilmore Girls" TV show was at once great exposure and probably a little bit of a trap, in the way that identification with any mass-media phenomenon freezes your music in the minds of many listeners at a particular time.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. PHILLIPS: (Singing) She's not with you now. You think too much about her. Making up new questions, you don't know what you don't know. Words you never say and the quiet doubts about you will gather in her head. Oh, tell her what she wants to learn, to find out, anyway.
TUCKER: Over the past few years, Phillips has created what she calls her Long Play Project, to be found on her website, samphillips.com. There, without the help or interference of a record company, she records, posts and sells downloads of new music, even as she continues to organize and merchandise them under the pre-digital terms of EPs and albums. Long play itself is a variation on an old term for an album, an LP or long player. There's a lot of terrific music here, and on this new CD "Solid State" it collects 13 examples of it.
One of my favorites is the idiosyncratic "Lever Pulled Down."
(Soundbite of song, "Lever Pulled Down")
Ms. PHILLIPS: (Singing) In this dead-eyed world, how long before they tell you how far you've come? What do you have to make to make good? And when can we raise the roof to the stars? I'm a lever pulled down. I'm stick shift. I'm a lever pulled down from the fire in my head. I'm a lever pulled down, and I'd give my life for the (unintelligible). In this dead-eyed world...
TUCKER: What I like about that song "Lever Pulled Down" is, first of all, its loping beat, and the way the drums slam down an emphasis on the refrain. Then there's Phillips' distinctive way with a metaphor, comparing herself to a lever pulled down, as a flipped switch, as a way of saying she feels turned on, empowered without using the overused term empowered.
It amounts to a clever bit of a pun bolstered by powerful music. So it is throughout "Solid State." This is the work of someone who seems invigorated and emboldened by using new methods of communication and distribution to make the art she wants to make, hoping and trusting an audience will find it. The lyrics she sings in a lullaby to a child also works as a greeting to those who discover her. Quote: "So glad you're here."
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed "Solid State," a new CD from Sam Phillips. You can download podcasts of our show on our website: freshair.npr.org.