Sam PhillipsA Boot and a Shoe (Nonesuch)
"When no one is listening, I have so much to say," Sam Phillips sings on "How to Quit," the opening track of her new CD, A Boot and a Shoe. It's a bit of an exaggeration -- some of us have been listening to her obsessively for 16 years now, ever since she cast off her given name, Leslie, and a successful career as a contemporary-Christian artist to immerse herself in the secular waters of indie-pop. But her conversion from Jesus-freak pinup to critics' darling wasn't as dramatic as some might suppose: Even as a born-again Christian, Phillips explored the darkness and doubt of her faith, preferring the thorny conundrums of Gerard Manley Hopkins to the anodyne slogans of Amy Grant. And although she's no longer pigeonholed as a religious songwriter, she still sings about the state of her soul, the temptation to succumb to despair or hedonism, the need to glean meaning and hope from the dispiriting vastness.
On A Boot and a Shoe, her second album for Nonesuch, Phillips and producer/husband T-Bone Burnett stick with the spare instrumentation and the hushed, elegant arrangements that made her previous release, 2001's Fan Dance, something of a departure from her more studio-centric back catalog. Supported by guest luminaries such as Jim Keltner, Marc Ribot, and Carla Azar, along with a minimalist string section, Phillips's marmalade murmur has never sounded sexier or more compelling, and the flat-out gorgeousness of her melodies, with their aching swells and delirious ba-ba-bas, shines through the spaces like a revelation. On "Reflecting Light," perhaps the most beautiful song on a relentlessly beautiful record, Phillips sings, "My dark heart lit up the skies," a paradox that perfectly captures the incandescent melancholy of her singular genius.
Jay FarrarStone, Steel & Bright Lights (Transmit Sound)
After three solo releases, Jay Farrar is back to prove that he can still rock out like nobody's business, reconfiguring songs from those previous efforts with the inspired support of Canyon, a Washington, D.C.-based quintet that toured with Farrar in the fall of 2003. Stone, Steel & Bright Lights is a document of these performances, a collection of sometimes-radical reinventions, two new originals, and a pair of covers (Syd Barrett's sinister psych-dirge "Lucifer Sam" and Neil Young's existential love song "Like a Hurricane"). As if 19 incendiary live tracks weren't enough, a bonus DVD containing footage from a January 2004 gig in San Francisco rounds out the package.
Farrar, a native of Belleville, Ill., who now lives in St. Louis, has never quite rid himself of the hoopla surrounding Uncle Tupelo, the visionary alt-country band he founded in the late '80s with Jeff Tweedy, who currently fronts Wilco and bathes in the critical slobber largely denied his more talented but less ingratiating former bandmate. Farrar's gifts don't lend themselves so easily to fanboy simpering: His sturdy, somber baritone wends its way through minor keys and recondite phrases; his unconventional guitar tunings and enigmatic melodies insinuate rather than dominate; his interests seem like those of a grown-up, not of a terminal adolescent. In short, his greatness as a songwriter is inversely proportional to his profound suckitude as a celebrity.
Stone probably won't do much to change this fact, but the true believers wouldn't have it any other way. On one of the new songs, "Six String Belief," Farrar comes as close as he probably ever will to a manifesto: "The Declaration framer states revolution sets the course straight.../Corruption in the system, a grassroots insurrection will bring them down/Rock & roll around my head, alive and kicking." Here's hoping he's right, but if not, Farrar and his six strings are salvation enough.