Issue #129: The Indescribable Wow by Sam Phillips
September 4, 2018
Released On August 9, 1988
Released By Virgin Records
Sam Phillips is a musician I find myself endlessly fascinated with. Her voice, her words, her music, her ethos, her life — it’s all so intrinsically multifaceted that no matter which way you approach her, you’re bound to walk away with a truly astonishing feeling. Her 1988 record described this phenomenon best in relation to her music, and also her own identity: The Indescribable Wow.
In any context, Indescribable Wow is an impressive album, a record landing soundly in the pop rock landscape thanks to its ornate design, but a design that’s not rigid or halcyon by any means. No, it’s a design that flows thanks to a robust singer-songwriter current that forces the music to bend and contort well outside the realms of expected radio music. It’s music that is gracefully constructed so as to make the stripped-down versions feel just as vibrant and gratifying as the fully polished aggregate. This might be enough to make you go out and pick it up, and I’d strongly implore you to do so. You’ll find it as the first entry in Sam Phillip’s gorgeous discography, but don’t get the wrong impression: this is not a debut album. Just the first for Ms. Phillips under the name Sam. For her other work, you’d need to look up the name Leslie Phillips, and it’s there where you’ll find four highly successful records that were the talk of the Christian music scene back in the early ’80s.
I don’t know exactly why she left that scene, especially as her rapidly maturing songwriting and prudent voice would have easily led to her usurping Amy Grant as the Queen of Christian music. Wikipedia simply lists her departure as resulting from feeling uncomfortable with being marketed as “the Christian Cyndi Lauper” — a moniker that is rather lazy and tasteless — and the articles I’ve read on her music mostly picked up on the same vague explanation. The how and why are mostly irrelevant though. What’s relevant is this music. This wonderful, ten song collection that opened everyone’s ears to the effulgent sounds, profound thoughts, and dynamic voice all swirling around within Sam Phillips.
The opener, “I Don’t Want To Fall In Love,” starts the record by flaunting Phillips’ talent to anyone listening. Musically, it shows off the range her voice utilizes, gliding delicately from casual assertion to graceful reassurance and sounding completely infectious at every turn. Lyrically, it’s eloquently constructed with evocative lines like “I stumbled on a minefield / Where desire was still buried” and cheeky twists like the alternating chorus of “I don’t want to fall in love / with the idea of / I don’t want to fall in love / with love.” It’s a jaunty affair followed by another pop construct, but by the third song, “Flame,” she’s settled into a lesser gear to show that she’s just as comfortable slowing things down and allowing the sounds and words to swirl around her in order to create something hauntingly beautiful. From there, it’s anyone’s guess as the tracklisting bounces from outré jaunts to more traditional oblations, all the while showcasing Phillip’s singular voice that can bend time with its ingenious phrasing or make your heart spin wildly with its imaginative lyrics.
Particularly fascinating about this record is the distance and connection between the record’s two stand-out tracks: “I Don’t Know How To Say Goodbye To You” and “What Do I Do.” Both are born out of the same environment — a hesitant theme of concern amplified by robust and encompassing production — but the end results are polar opposites. “I Don’t Know How To Say Goodbye To You” is a prodigious proclamation of the singer’s insecurities that’s propelled by its conviction, whereas “What Do I Do” is a layered lament of anguish that’s extracted by its own marginalization. The former, a forgotten pop classic that deserves inclusion in any and every possible ’80s playlist, is one that will bounce around in your ears for weeks if you let it, while the latter, an orchestral masterpiece that should turn the ear of any studio exponent, is one that will compel you to peel back its opulent musical tiers. They’re each worthy of repeated listens by themselves, but it’s together, separated by only a few tracks in the first half of the record, that really present the listener with an indelible impression as to the depth and purview of Sam Phillip’s music.
That’s not the only moment of songs mirroring each other. If you were to pick up the vinyl version of this record, you’d notice how the opening tracks of each side, “I Don’t Want To Fall In Love” (Side One) and “I Can’t Stop Crying” (Side Two), begin with organ inversions of the other while offering a new take on the same subject matter. And if you want to do a really deep dive into this record, you could pinpoint all the similarities between the first five songs and last five songs, but I’m not here to go down the rabbit hole of comparing the austere “Remorse” to the acerbic “What You Don’t Want To Hear” (though it’s completely doable).
You’ll notice many of these songs soundtracking larger-than-life atmospheres, like the Middle-Eastern-meets-Strawberry-Alarm-Clock strain that fills the background of “Holding On To The Earth.” For that, I’m sure we have to thank the producer of the record, famed musician T-Bone Burnett, who was also the then-husband of Phillips. His touch may be a bit heavy-handed at times, but it certainly works in giving Phillips a mark to strive for musically, one she easily surpasses each time. As stated before though, the real beauty of this music is in how gorgeous and stirring it would be even in its barest iteration. Even with just a guitar by her side, each of these songs would instantly compel us to stop and listen and become fans for life.
I have to mention my introduction into Sam Phillip’s wonderful discography: the television show Gilmore Girls. I’ve mentioned the show before in this publication, and I still stand by the assertion that it is, without a doubt, the best TV show for music lovers ever made. Not only does Sam’s own music score some pivotal moments of the show, but she also composed and performed the idyllic background score of the show, which most fans will recognize as the cheeky and infectious “la-la-la”‘s that fill the space in between each overflowing scene. As much as Carole King’s work on the show makes my heart soar, it’s Sam Phillips who gives musical life to Stars Hollow, a vibrant town in which her music is an essential component. And even though it’s not from this record, the talk of Sam Phillips and Gilmore Girls compels me to point you in the direction of Phillips finest song to date, the stirring emotional avowal “Reflecting Light,” from her 2004 record A Boot And A Shoe, that soundtracks a pivotal and unforgettable moment in the show’s story.
But for those listening to that song, know that that’s just one of the many climaxes in the adventurous journey that is Sam Phillips music. You’ll want to start with The Indescribable Wow, a record that is definitely ineffable at times, but never anything less than stunningly brilliant on every musical level that might appeal to your yearning ears.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
An aural sage armed with a commanding sound, nimble melodies, & an ingenious vision.
The petrichor smell of tokens to Aladdin’s Arcade competed against the dry paper feel of tickets pouring out of the skeeball machine. My little brother and I had recently gotten in trouble for gaming the machine, running up to the side to drop those tan speckled balls into the 100 slot so the tickets would churn out, building up to the hanging mirror featuring a pink and purple unicorn I so desperately wanted. I’d had to promise two of my best G.I. Joes for that, but that mirror was worth it. Sizzling batter at the foot-long corn dog stand weighed against my desire to go to Claire’s, where I could touch all the prom-ready chandeliers not yet ready to hang against my 8-year-old ears. Despite hanging at the mall as an early preteen more concerned with points on Street Fighter than meeting boys from other towns, the fabric of The Indescribable Wow overlays the teenage angst I felt in the ’90s with the neon eyeshadow and rolled socks I know of the ’80s. Effervescent and indescribably happy, even if she’s crooning lyrics like “I don’t know how to say goodbye to you,” Phillips should be cloying or maybe dated at this point, but there’s an undeniable pull to the songs on the album. For all that it sounds like a sweetened sugar-pop rendition of love, Phillips delivers many songs about the dregs of loving and being unloved by someone packaged in the optimistic arrangements of ’60s girl groups. Listening to a song now entitled “Holding On To The Earth” delivered in such a melody reminiscent of Arthur Brown amidst tracks calling up The Monkees and The Beatles throws my adolescent mind for a spin, my adult brain to a delicious place of unpacking and analysis. While I wish I’d heard this as a younger person, I wish more that I’d been able to bring this album up with me through boyfriends and girlfriends and the delicious havoc relationships cause.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
I’d be lying if I said the 1988 recording year listed for this Sam Phillips record that Doug picked didn’t act an initial cause for concern. That’s near the end of the decade but still a long ways off from the years when the definitive sound of the 1990s would come to take prominence. The Indescribable Wow doesn’t shy away entirely from all sonic hallmarks of 1980s music but somehow it averts from enough to not come across corny, tacky, or like a record that should only be taken out during a 1980s themed party. Phillips’s articulate but gentle voice combines with the album’s core instrumental arsenal to create tone light and melodically fueled songs that, if it weren’t for the moments of expansive room reverb and gated snare drum, could at times be passed for ideas born from a ’70s folk aesthetic. Just taking a closer listen to tracks like “I Don’t Know How To Say Goodbye To You” and “Flame,” the clean, almost jangle-style lead guitars, along with tambourine and bongos respectively, bring to mind easy going tunes by the likes of Joni Mitchell and Carole King. Heck, the opening moments of “Holding On To The Earth” unveils a fundamental but poignant minor ascending string motif that sounds fit for a sitar and straight out of late ’70s psychedelia. And then, when a chime-like organ tone follows with a nimble little turn of a note pattern, you’d almost expect the song to break out into full psychedelic band formation (and in fact, a sitar does manage to sneak in, quietly playing under much of the arrangement at about only 35 seconds into the song!). This oddly working hybrid of production vision and genre-leaning instrument timbres seems like something that only worked because of sheer dumb luck but when one takes notice of T. Bone Burnett behind the producer’s curtain, the possibilities suddenly become much more vast and believable past the point of “total musical fluke.” After all, working with a producer who has sonically shaped records across pop, folk, rock, alternative, and more up to that point in his career, (which had already spanned more than two decades and distinct genre sound eras), the idea that Burnett might think to and successfully execute blending previously unattached musical qualities, is as expected as that gated snare in an ’80s record.
Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier
When Sam Phillips’ The Indescribable Wow was released, I was that age where I was right on the cusp of developing the inner identity I’d end up holding onto through at least high school, if not the majority of the rest of my life. Where the influencers I had were wise and all-knowing — just so damn cool — before I started thinking everyone was full of shit and that I could figure out what I liked for myself, thank you very much. It’s the age where I treated the older girl across the street’s taste like it was handed down from on high. When I started saving my money for tapes because I knew I loved music, I just hadn’t found my music yet, y’know? But I bought tape after tape, well on my way to becoming Girl Who Knows Music. I don’t know that I’ve ever talked about what I liked before I knew what I liked. I’m not necessarily going to today, but for every Surfer Rosa, there was a Forever Your Girl. For every Beastie Boy, there was — at one point — a New Kid. In retrospect, I could have easily replaced Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is A Place on Earth” with Phillips’ “What You Don’t Want To Hear.” It requires almost no stretching to imagine myself loving “Holding On To The Earth” quite a bit more than Johnny Hates Jazz’s “Shattered Dreams” (and, honestly, I’ve listened to the former at least 20 times this week). The Indescribable Wow seems to serve as a bridge between the ubiquitous songs of my youth that I loved because they were there, and the songs that were there later because I loved them. I wish I had discovered it 30 years ago.
50 Foot Pop Queenie
Freely shifting between vintage & modern images much like the record itself.
A few years ago, I created a Spotify playlist called “Favorite Robot Voices.” I threw a few vocoder-heavy songs on there (Imogen Heap’s “Hide And Seek,” James Blake’s “Lindisfarne I” and “Lindisfarne II,” etc.) and ended up deleting it shortly thereafter because I wasn’t adding to it. It’s not that I stopped reaching for those songs; they still do the trick when I’m bummed out and want to bum myself out even more. And it’s certainly not the case that the world has stopped auto-tuning songs. It became clear yesterday, when I was thinking about how nicely “What Do I Do” would fit on that list, that I’d given the playlist the wrong name. It’s not about sounding like a robot, or about the use of technology. Those songs belong in the same category because of what happens when you layer a single voice and sing with and to yourself, the space that can create, and the emotions than can rush in to fill that space. With “Hide And Seek,” it’s rueful disorientation that floods in. With Blake’s “Lindisfarne” progression, it’s quiet desperation. With “What Do I Do,” it’s paralysis. A cycle of questions that threatens to keep the questioner on the sidelines. The way the song’s presented – with layer after layer of Phillips’ vocals and a busy string arrangement — stands out as a departure from the rest of T. Bone Burnett’s characteristic clean-but-still-of-its-time production on The Indescribable Wow, but it couldn’t fit the song’s emotional core more perfectly. Maybe a better name for the playlist would be “Rumination.” The sounds of the mind’s echo chamber. I can’t wait to find other tracks to throw on there.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
It’s astounding that such an incredible pop gem could exist and remain off my radar, but that is the situation I find myself in. Phillips has an amazing voice and the songs that she’s singing are catchy as hell. But more than that, and this is the part that makes it unique in my mind, the lyrics are incredibly relatable. In “I Don’t Know How To Say Goodbye To You,” she sings, “I don’t know how to say goodbye to you / I’m not good at things that I don’t want to do” which is so damn true and I had never heard someone articulate that feeling in quite that way. I loved this album and that’s all there is to it.
James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts
I remember hearing about Sam Phillips in the early ’90s and being baffled, because I already knew about the legendary Sun Records producer who’d discovered Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis (among many others) back in the ’50s, and just couldn’t believe that anyone would willingly confuse themselves with that guy. Now I’m hearing about Sam Phillips again for the first time in years, and it happens right after my wife and I finished reading the biography of the famous producer; nearly 30 years later, I’m still getting thrown by the confluence. But never mind all that, let’s discuss the music at hand. I never really listened to Sam Phillips in the early ’90s; I read about her in Rolling Stone (to which I subscribed throughout my teenage years), and formed an impression of her sound based on that. Listening to The Indescribable Wow, I find my three-decade-old teenage understanding was not terribly far off. She’s a singer and guitarist with a post-college rock approach to folk music, and a bouncy sound that displays the heavy hand of producer T-Bone Burnett, whose highly-polished, studio-musician heavy, digitally saturated productions are the sound of the late ’80s rock n’ roll mainstream. If you’re reading that as a less-than-ringing endorsement, you’re not wrong, but Sam Phillips manages to rise above the Burnettian fingerprints all over her first album since leaving the Christian-music industry with an effervescent voice and a talent for catchy songwriting. That folky heart — which I never knew had Christian roots until doing research for this blurb, but boy does it make sense in hindsight — is somewhat obscured by the production on this record, resulting in a poppier album than I expected. But songs like “Remorse” and “I Don’t Know How To Say Goodbye To You” distinguish themselves with their power-pop bounce, and the organ-driven midtempo number “Holding On To The Earth” has a strong garage-psych vibe. And then there’s the string-laced symphonic pop (featuring orchestration by the legendary Van Dyke Parks!) of “What Do I Do,” which shows a tender emotional touch to Phillips’ vocals, making clear how multi-dimensional an artist she is. I know Phillips has gotten a lot of acclaim over the years, having always had a reputation for work a cut above that of the average singer-songwriter. Now that I’ve finally heard her music, I’ve learned that this reputation is well deserved.
Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground
Since I was a child, my favorite part about music from the 1960s was the organs. Not the iconic groups, the groundbreaking singer-songwriters, or the rebellious spirit of a generation. The organs. They gave the music such character. The organs are the timestamp for the music of that era — nothing sounded like that before or since. If The Doors are the New York Yankees of the period, then Ray Manzerick’s organ patches are their pinstripes. And that’s why I was so pleased to hear Sam Phillips call back to those nostalgic elements on “I Can’t Stop Crying” and “Holding On To The Earth.” From the opening strums of “I Can’t Stop Crying” (which are engineered to sound an awful lot like a harpsichord), one can’t help but harken back to the campy yet, somehow soulful moments of our favorite Partridge Family records. And then there’s the opening of “Holding On To The Earth:” a sitar into a classic B-3 organ run. Does it get any more ’60s than that? It put me right back into the headspace of watching Adam West in Batman, which just so happens to be my favorite TV show of all time. No other show is filled with so man bangs, pops, zaps, pows, and indescribable wows.
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
Remarkable in any mode, whether it be bolstered by a full wall of sound or highlighted by a solitary instrument.
There was a time when the range of female singer-songwriters were a rich garden of unique sounds, approaches, and variable talents. At the risk of sounding nostalgic, artists like Kate Bush, Suzanne Vega, Sinead O’Conner, Dolores O’Riordan, and Sam Phillips were total originals. Their voices and styles were as unique as they were authentic. Nobody at that time knew what the formula for success was and so they followed their artistic muse down the rabbit hole of original music. Somewhere around the time Alanis became Alanis Morissette, there was a resolution of that formula and record companies started stamping out and seeking out female sound that ticked a lot of boxes. Suddenly there were two options — pop star, the already generic sound of the female R&B teens and secondly, the slow homogenization of the sound of the more organic “female singer-songwriter.” It eventually devolved into into what we know today as the “indie girl voice” phenomenon. It’s become the target of both cultural anthropologists and those who would ridicule it in recent years. Long before this, however, Sam Phillips and her ilk were forming the DNA of original and challenging pop music which held court with the men of their day. Indeed there’s elements of Peter Gabriel and Thomas Dolby in Sam Phillips’ sound. Though she began recording critically acclaimed Christian albums — four of them, in fact — she eventually grew uncomfortable with her role as the weirdest of the otherwise fairly banal Christian female singer-songwriters. She abandoned that persona and released her first mainstream-aimed record, The Indescribable Wow. To her credit, the move to mainstream music didn’t mean compromising her style. A bouncy but dainty production, rich with melody and pleasant folky pop hooks. “I Can’t Stop Crying” is a good example of a sure-footed and confident pop song which didn’t need gimmicks. Her sonic resemblance to contemporaries such as Cyndi Lauper must be acknowledged, but her singles carry a certain simplicity and melancholy tone hidden under the peppy masquerade. The Indescribably Wow wasn’t the wide mainstream hit it was intended to be as often happened in those days, but it remains, nevertheless, a highly influential and important stepping stone in popular indie female rock. I’d tell you that more women should try to sound like this — but that’s how we ended up where we are today. Instead, more women and men should try to be as original as this.
Darryl Wright (@punksteez)
Lovechild Of The Music & Technology Marriage
Records produced by T-Bone Burnett often leave me very underwhelmed. Yes, I love Elvis Costello’s King Of America. Yes, I fell hook, line, and sinker for the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack just like everyone else. But when it comes to something like The Indescribable Wow by Sam Phillips, I feel like I have to listen through something to hear what she’s trying to do. I even felt that way when the record came out and every publication — and my sister — insisted I give it a listen. The disconnected, fragmented production, where every instrument feels like it’s in a separate sonic universe, led me to dismiss it quickly back in 1988 and never revisit it in the intervening years. Out of respect for Doug (our fearless leader), I gave it more of a chance this time around and discovered some really great pop songs! “I Don’t Know How To Say Goodbye To You,” for example, draws on The Byrds conversational style with sparkling results, despite the intrusively tuned drums. Phillips adds all kinds of little touches to the vocals and also did great job as her own multi-tracked background singers — one production idea that works really well. “She Can’t Tell Time” showcases Phillips’ downbeat side nicely and you feel her compassion in the way she sings lyrics like “When she won’t act her age / the cat circles round the cage / Youth shrinks to tired rage.” While I usually hate it when an artist re-records one of their old records, this is one case where I think it could work. For one thing, based on my quick perusal of the rest of her career, Phillips is an even better singer now, with more pure feeling in her voice and a more well-developed range, especially in the lower notes. For another, she could give the songs a more sympathetic treatment than Burnett, with a more naturalistic band feel. Or maybe no band at all – can we revive MTV Unplugged for the occasion?
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
As I spent the week with The Indescribable Wow, I struggled to come up with a jumping-off point, something that I could run with. There was no anecdote, no tangential relationship, nothing to pull from. All I had by Thursday were a few ancillary observations: that like Morrissey, Sam Phillips makes downtrodden ideas catchy; that her plainspeak delivery makes a universalism like, “I’m not good at things that I don’t want to do” personal; that the jangle-pop melodies throughout are likely a carryover from her Christian rock days; that the sense of powerlessness she conveys — look no further than the song titles — mixed with upbeat songwriting makes for a surprisingly brilliant pairing. But that stuff didn’t amount to much, and so I began to panic just a bit because usually I’d have at least a broad concept to work with by that point in the week. And then I realized something — couldn’t I just say that Wow is a delightful record? That three of its songs never left the back of my mind after the initial listen? That her sharp lyricism (i.e., “build a wall of silence cutting soul in two”) is just another layer of greatness found here? That the doubt in her lyrics married to catchy tunes might be her way of giving herself a pep talk (and how relatable that is by itself)? Yeah, I guess I could just say all that. Huh, look at that — I guess I just did.
Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That
Chequered! by Chubby Checker
Chosen By Guest Contributor Kristin Hersh (of Throwing Muses)