Play It Again, Sam

The reissue of Sam Phillips’ classic album Martinis & Bikinis invites a reconsideration of her Christian-pop roots and what drove her away from them.

Contemporary Christian Music will probably always languish under an association with easy answers, clappy-happy choruses, and kitsch. But for the born-again baby boomers who grew up in the 70s amidst the rapid proliferation of radio pop, it began as a bona fide spiritual lifeline, a way for teenagers to merge seemingly disparate passions for Christian faith and the world of rock. Once upon time a Zion curtain really did effectively muffle any exchange between cultural worlds. So much so that when Amy Grant pioneered a joint distribution agreement between her label and A&M Records, Billboard magazine ran an ad that rightly informed its secular readers, “You may not know this artist by name, but millions know her music by heart.” Fast-forward to today, when magazines like Christianity Today weigh in with reviews of albums ranging from Hillsong to Bruce Springsteen indiscriminately. We have morphed into a media- and market-driven age where “Christian & Gospel” is a marketable category on iTunes right up there with “Dance” and “Hip-Hop and Rap,” and where songs by CCM bands like Switchfoot can fall into the Top Forty without a note of a ripple. Now it sounds nostalgic to explain to a rising generation just why it provided any sort of rush to hear Paul Davis sing “Do Right” on commercial airwaves for the first time, or why Bob Dylan’s Christian infatuation with faith ever proved a sensation. At some point in the preceding decades a Wall of Sound fell. So “Christian Hipster,” once an oxymoron, is now a demographic.

Those early days came to mind as I scanned the e-mail I just received from CCM expatriate Sam Phillips announcing her landmark 1994 album Martinis & Bikinis is getting the full reissue treatment on CD and—we are talking hipsters after all—double LP, with the first 1,500 copies to be pressed on white vinyl. The infamous cover art for Martinis—showing her strewn, in feigned exhaustion, across a bed that hides the still-warm corpses of her former Fundie fans—remains an iconic indictment of the frequent conflicts between religious conservatism and art. But despite her protests, Phillips’ debt to her Christian past remains evident, and later critical laurels never quite managed to propel her beyond early notoriety. Nonetheless, her discography proves her to be not just lead vocalist in an episodic memory play but formidable artist in her own right as well. Hot house flower, haunting performer, or perhaps more than a little of both, a fresh round of Martinis provides a fitting occasion for a retelling of her story, if not quite a toast.

Leslie Phillips began her career as the darling of fledgling Myrhh Records. She recorded a string of unapologetically Christian efforts: Beyond Saturday Night (1983), Dancing With Danger (1984), and Black and White in a Gray World (1985) were all just as religiously-reposed as their titles suggested. And they performed well enough sales-wise for a misguided mid-80s Harper’s profile to attempt to assign her throne rights as “The Queen of Christian Rock.” (Of these albums the first, interestingly, has aged most gracefully, with occasional vocal turns that might make Ann Wilson of Heart jealous and a few infectious Jesus People choruses.) But she was far edgier than Sandi Patty or Amy Grant, with a gritty vocal approach, some awful 80s hair, and a penchant for upstaging interviewers. “I tried to think about career issues when I was in Gospel music. I got mixed up. Things got a little strange. I learned that to have a little success with music you’re not happy about is a horrible feeling,” Phillips explained later. “I came in contact with the Bible Belt and the Right Wing and this sleazy marketing of people’s faith in God…. People were fearful, wanting to be told what they already believed over and over again.”

Fed up at seeing her music converted to gospel rants, Phillips finally packed her bags and ran away from CCM-land, changing her name to “Sam” and swearing off gospel music forever. But not before enlisting boyfriend and famed mainstream producer T-Bone Burnett to help record The Turning (Myrhh 1987), her combination goodbye wave and parting shot. An instant classic, it artfully mixed angst, faith, and killer hooks—all heightened by the drama of her stormy departure. Percussive numbers like “Expectations” and the Buddy Hollyesque “Beating Heart” read like painful self-analysis, but were also loaded with enough raw energy and hooks to make the point moot. And when she hit her stride, as she did on “Libera Me” (where she flirted with Latin liturgics) and the belter “Love Is Not Lost,” what emerged was a sound that was altogether unique. “Far more generous of spirit than most secular-gospel records nowadays,” praised Rolling Stone in a rare review of a Christian album. “In these days of sordid PTL revelations, it’s reassuring to find a vocal Christian operating in pop culture who’s not also a media monster… [The Turning is] a religious record made by folks with secular ears.”

With Burnett riding shotgun, Phillips subsequently signed a contract with Los Angeles’ Virgin Records. Four corporately backed and marketed albums would follow as she foreswore former allegiances. 1988’s The Indescribable Wow took its title, ironically, from a sermon title displayed on a roadside church sign.  The densely produced, mesmerizing set of Beatles-influenced love songs was a tour-de-force of “dazzlingly arranged and executed pop songs…. Phillips is a deft lyricist, a sophisticated and resourceful melodist, and a daring, intuitive master of pop hooks and structure,” raved High Fidelity. She would pair things down for Cruel Inventions (1991), a more brooding affair the cover of which featured a headshot of Phillips aping the expression of an uncomfortably impish waif. She got the reaction she doubtless wanted when reviewer weighed in, “Back in the dreary days when she was Leslie Phillips…you could pretty much count on the way the routine would come out. Sweet hymns, scripture paraphrases, and a double back-flip of a love song at the end, and then wait for the riotous applause from the Youth Pastors of America. God knows what the Youth Pastors are thinking now.” But the music itself retained a streak of spirituality. “It sounds like serious stuff, and it is, but Sam couches [her] musings in brilliant pop settings: Can you imagine the dark night of the soul on Top Forty radio?” asked a critic of Inventions. “Believe it with this album.”

But the third time would prove the charm in terms of critical convergence. Martinis and Bikinis was released in 1994. The LP’s recording sessions constituted what was practically a 90s alternative rock council: R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, XTC’s Colin Moulding, and Benmont Tench (of Tom Petty’s  Heartbreakers) all lent it a credibility given indisputable imprimatur by the presiding presence of Burnett. “Baby I Can’t Please You,” the leadoff single, was a musical kiss off to the Religious Right made more palatable by an infectious beat and intricate interplay of guitars and Indian sitars. Though it misfired in terms of airplay it was well aimed at reviewers, so much so one might be forgiven for concluding that as far as the media establishment is concerned, there’s no Christian quite like a disaffected Christian. The innumerable reviews were effusive. “It takes massive cojones to flirt so close to Beatlemania,” said Entertainment Weekly, “but this quirky folk-rocker has the talent to pull it off…one of the year’s most beguiling records.” Billboard magazine lapsed into over-the-top mode, assigning Martinis mythic status: “In generations onward, when others reflect on the hollows of our faithless age, the work of Phillips, like that of the poets she holds dear, will show that many still sought to improvise virtue after much common evidence of it had evaporated.” Newsweek devoted a full page to its review, declaring that “Martinis—smart, biting, and full of immaculately conceived melodies—feels like her breakthrough record.” But that was to be wishful thinking; despite the critical acclaim, Phillips’ celebrity never quite caught fire. A fourth oddball (putting it kindly) and largely unnoticed album for Virgin—1996’s Omnipop—resulted in a parting of the ways between her and the corporate giant. In 2004 a divorce from Burnett was followed by several sparsely produced indie albums for the Nonesuch label (Fan Dance [2001], A Boot and a Shoe [2004], Don’t Do Anything [2008]) that suggested her husband’s role as Svengali was more integral to her most indelible sonic pastiches than critics might have guessed. She’s gone on to write TV soundtracks (The Gilmore Girls, and now Bunheads), and in 2009 began regularly posting an eclectic offering of online music (including a morose Christmas collection, a paean to Aimee Semple McPherson, and most recently the album Solid State [2011]). Yet close to two decades on, Martinis is still hailed as her defining work.

Just what was in the drink that Phillips was serving? Poetic if cryptic lyrics that hardly wore their meaning on their sleeve tasted a lot like that ingredient impossible to nail. She would have made a perfect musical pereti at Vatican II. To paraphrase words Frank Sheed once wrote of the theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, no writer of our time has ever secured so vast and rapturous a following of readers who have found it hard to say, even to themselves, what she was saying. On Martinis you could hear the yearning of a romantic dueling with the jaded kick of a reluctant rebel. All mixed together with some snappy psychedelic pop. Truth with bitters in a smart presentation glass.

But was it “Christian” music? Phillips certainly hoped not. Any more than Flannery O’Connor wrote “Christian” fiction or, more problematically, Karl Rahner’s more opaque material could in any emphatic sense be called orthodox. Was Phillips the believer’s friend or foe? Apparently both. Hers is thoughtful as well as tuneful music, with sentiments especially resonant for anyone who has felt the sting of conformist pressures amidst communal faith. She lampooned prosperity theology in its various expressions (“God will grant us all our wishes…martinis and bikinis for our friends.”) She also celebrated questions as much as answers, backing off from the certainty of faith in favor of uncertainty of life. In one interview she offered the barb, “I want to disassociate myself with the whole born-again movement. It has about as much to do with true Christianity as a third generation Xerox does with the Mona Lisa.” A charitable Christian listener might deem her lyrics as “pre-evangelistic,” tilling the furrow ground. The jangling “Signposts” borrows its title from Walker Percy’s essay “Signpost in a Strange Land,” and finds Phillips celebrating life beyond Fundamentalism, “to get lost and love the questions there / beauty and the truth, and breathe like air.” “Same Rain,” another sonically arresting moment, is redolent of a familiar theme of the Psalmist, asking, “Is it the same rain that falls on a holy man, is it the same rain that falls on a liar’s hand, is it the same rain that falls on me?” More tuneful is the biting social critique of “Same Changes,” driven home with an energetic riff: “The camera angles and the name campaigns / The stare cuts and the latest extremes / The way we sell ourselves, the way we spend our greed / How long it takes to hear our dreams? … Hold on to the voice inside you.” Was that written 20 years or two minutes ago?

Omnivore’s reissue of Martinis & Bikinis boasts high-quality reproductions of the original artwork, plus four bonus alternate tracks. For fans of Beatles-flavored pop, Walker Percy, U2-styled spiritualizing, or  smart blondes, it should offer more than few revelatory finds. For aficionados of early CCM, a better bet may be Myrhh’s Recollection (1987), a undeservedly unnoticed disc that manages to deftly balance Samlie’s overt Christian music with her then-burgeoning progressive instincts without suggesting a heretic. It’s on a slightly safer order than Martinis, but to modern ears in a more forgiving climate, neither will seem like reason for an inquisition. It was in her exit interview from CCM voicing frustration with the limited imagination of Fundamentalism that Phillips quoted from Thomas Merton’s Raids on the Unspeakable. A better summary title for her own oeuvre could hardly be found.

Back to the present, a slicker commercial Christian scene now maintains a reassuringly confident counterbeat to MTV’s default poison setting that manages more than a few scores amidst many hamfisted performances. If Leslie found the born-again sisterhood stifling, neither Audrey Assad nor Britt Nicole give any indications of feeling the caged songbird. In a professional world whose origins are traceable to hymn sings, it can happily be confirmed that Assad is that rare bird—a warbling and songwriting  Roman Catholic. And everyone should count themselves the richer for her brand of musical ecumenism. A 2010 debut, The House You’re Building, was one of that year’s best, and now she offers the simply titled Heart (Sparrow 2012). And there’s no shortage of that on display. “O My Soul,” “Lament,” “Wherever You Go,” “Lament,” and “Sparrow” are every bit as simple yet far more stirring than their monosyllabic titles might suggest. Imagine Carole King casting her songcraft in stained glass instead of tapestry and you get something of the flavor here.

Far more revved up are the overproduced, shimmering exultations of Britt Nicole, whose tunes provide an alternative answer to the trainwreck that continues to be Katie Perry. Nicole’s new disc is a hybrid of cotton candy and spun Gold (Sparrow 2012). Sure there is a lot girl-power posturing alongside this gospel, but if you listen closely you can also catch strategically-lodged hymn fragments. In confessionals like “All This Time” and “Who You Say You Are,” her spiritual baseline is obvious and her emotional uplift undeniable. And on “Still That Girl” and especially “Stand,” where she projects her perky soprano into the inspirational stratosphere, I defy anyone to keep their heart in its seat.

Lastly, a singer who never quite belonged to CCM but whose life provided a stunning conversion smack dab in the middle of the disco era appears in a posthumous vocal cameo after her death earlier this year. Donna Summers’s voice floats over that of her nephew O’Mega Red in a smartly-executed and heartfelt rap single entitled “Angel” (Island Def Jam 2012). It’s tribute to two pillars of matriarchy and church that continue to support the African-American community. The lyrics are poignant and inventive: where else are you going to find “reverend” rhymed with “cerebellum”? Summer—63 on this track—sounds as vibrant as her young collaborator. It’s a generational merger that works seamlessly and provides a fit if fleeting reminder of one amazingly graced life and career.

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About Joseph F. Martin 0 Articles
Joseph F. Martin PhD, is a professor of Communication and Rhetoric at Hampton University in Virginia. He is the former art director of re:generation quarterly and his artwork has been commissioned by numerous national clients. He has also written essays and reviews for Word, Books and Culture, and other publications.