By John DeFore
A new Sam Phillips record is always something to celebrate. The pop chameleon takes her time - in the decade between her new one, A Boot and a Shoe (Nonesuch) and her breakthrough Martinis and Bikinis, she has only released two albums - but the results are always brilliant. As with 2001's Fan Dance, Boot is stripped down compared to the Beatlesy productions that made her name; that's all the better for listening to Phillips' sly, sexy songs, like "All Night" and "Draw Man," neither of which would have flown well back when she was a star on the Christian music circuit.
Little known fact: Phillips starred as a mute villainess in the third installment of the Die Hard franchise. Songwriter Eszter Balint had an infinitely more impressive big screen debut, as Eva in Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise. Balint is just emerging as a songwriter; her sophomore release Mud (Bar/None) proves she's not one of those dime-a-dozen actors who wanna play rock star. The record, produced by hipster veteran J.D. Foster, veers from swampy romp to dark funk, all with Tom Waits-y percussiveness and angularity setting off Balint's deadpan alto.
It's not quite as big a jump as from silver screen to recording studio, but Diana Krall is stepping out on The Girl in the Other Room, writing songs for the first time (with new beau Elvis Costello) instead of just crooning others' tunes. Some of the material works pretty well, in a mood clearly influenced by Costello's Burt Bacharach era, but most of the disc's buoyancy comes from a couple of well-chosen covers: Tom Waits' "Temptation" and Mose Allison's wry "Stop This World."
Speaking of interesting covers, an advance copy of Nora O'Connor's Bloodshoot debut 'Til the Dawn (due for release in August) boasts a few, from an old Fleetwood Mac tune to a heartfelt rendition of "Down Here," a jewel in the catalogue of Lori Carson. Carson, whose last disc was self-released and not easy to find, reappears on the 15th with The Finest Thing (Meta), an album that's gauzy and atmospheric even by Carson's own standards. Over half the record's tracks stretch beyond seven minutes, with vast stretches of quiet echoey guitars, ambient keyboards, and Carson singing "ooh" and "la" and "aah." That's got to be a product of the songwriter's flirtation with movie soundtracks; it sure makes for pleasant background music, even if it doesn't allow much room for the tender-as-a-bruise emotional portraits she paints so well in her more verbal songs.
For that, we have Nina Nastasia, whose tiny-label 2000 debut Dogs has just been reissued by Touch and Go. Readers of this column have already heard the hard sell for Nastasia's haunted beauty The Blackened Air and last year's Run to Ruin, so suffice to say that Dogs, while less ornate than the work which followed it, hints at all the qualities that made those albums must-hears.
Finally, a new record from an artist who changed ideas about what a female songwriter could be: On Trampin' (Columbia), Patti Smith returns to do what so few of her younger peers can bring themselves to attempt - she delivers a rock record that isn't afraid to be political through and through. It's not a masterpiece, but at its best it is searing, reminding you that some people still think that music can change the world - or at the very least, bear witness so loudly that the songwriter's dissent can't be ignored: On the twelve-minute "Radio Baghdad," Smith lets loose a cry of anguish for "Baghdad, center of the world, city in ashes," whose ancient ancestors testify "we invented the zero - but we mean nothing to you." Smith can do things that would get other anthem rockers laughed off stage: Toward the end of "Baghdad," she chants the words "They're robbin' / the cradle / of civil- / ization"; the phrasing is awkward as Hell, but the passion behind her words is unmistakable, and the epic scope of the song has made the bombast appropriate. One can guess it would be a devastating song to see performed live; fortunately, Smith's election-year tour brings her through Texas for three dates this month (June 16, 18, and 19 in Houston, Austin and Dallas, respectively). •
By John DeFore