Sam Phillips/Fan Dance (Nonesuch)

Sly, sensuous, sophisticated, stylish, sexy, slinky, smart...Sam Phillips is all of those things, and arguably the most intelligent and adventurous songwriter working today. Quietly and without much attention from the masses, she's been crafting cool, uncompromising music from her first album The Indescribable Wow, and every record since that pop gem has found her breaking new ground and refusing to be artistically straitjacketed. On Fan Dance, her first album of all-new work since 1996's Omnipop, she's exploring yet another new level of her muse, and has created a dark and intimate mood piece.

Instead of the playful studio experimentation that marked Omnipop, Fan Dancefeatures a sparse and elegant feel, sounding as if it was recorded after hours in an empty, smoky, noirish nightclub on a rainy October night. It's almost an acoustic album, most tracks consisting of little more than Sam on guitar or piano, backed with a little percussion or Marc Ribot's spooky psycho guitar stylings. But even so, there's still the eclectic instrumentation that marks her past albums: on "Wasting My Time" Sam is accompanied solely by Martin Tillman's cello, on "Taking Pictures" by harpsichord, and on "Soul Eclipse" by something called an "Optigan."

The spare production makes Sam's voice the star of the show, and she's never sounded better -- by turns, sad, playful, intimate, sardonic, and deeply personal, as if she's whispering in your ear. She's never overwrought or histrionic, but always subtle and understated, and more powerful because of it. Gillian Welch joins Sam on "Five Colors" and "Love is Everywhere I Go," and the meshing of their voices is gorgeous and chill-producing. It's perfect for the deft melodies and enigmatic lyrics, which are something of a dash of Leonard Cohen and John Lennon by way of e.e. cummings, yet with Sam's unique sensibility.

I had the privilege of seeing Sam in a special performance at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago a couple of years ago, in which she performed some of the songs on "Fan Dance" along with her husband/producer T-Bone Burnett, Gillian Welch, and Marc Ribot. It was perhaps the most fascinating concert I've ever seen in a lifetime of concert-going, and Fan Dance reminds me a lot of that performance: mesmerizing, unconventional and beautiful. Sam hasn't done a real tour since 1994, and we can only hope she'll tour for this album.

Fan Dancewill probably not outsell N'Sync, Britney, or Mariah, but then, it doesn't need to. Sam Phillips is an artist who's not interested in moving units, but in moving hearts. With Fan Dance, Sam will softly and silkily insinuate herself into your soul. There's only one problem: at just under 34 minutes, the album's over much too soon. After five years, Sam, we need more!

(C) Mark Wolverton

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