Sam Phillips – Martinis & Bikinis (review)

Sam Phillips – Martinis & Bikinis (reissue) (Omnivore Records) review

What makes one album a hit and another an underground classic?

A near-perfect Nineties rock record gets the reissue treatment.

Sam Phillips had tried very hard to be a pop star.  She and her then-husband T-Bone Burnett had crafted several albums of infectious pop in the early Nineties which, for some reason, never found the audience they deserved.  Instead of beating a dead horse, they decided to make the kind of album they would like.

So, with influences clearly on their sleeve, came Martinis and Bikinis – full of vintage guitar sounds, big, echoey percussion, and Phillips’ soaring yet gritty vocals.  The album was chock full of great melodies, like the Sgt. Pepper-infused “Strawberry Road.”  Yet, it was still very much a rock record, judging from the lead single, the driving “Same Changes.”

Several factors play into the album’s greatness.  For one, there’s Phillips’ delivery.  At a time when most women were either cute, sexy or whiny, she’s none of the above.  Instead, there’s an unforced mix of rasp and soul that permeates her vocals.  Her multi-layered background vocals add a haunting tension to many of the tracks (“I Need Love” is one fine example).  The record also has a distinctive groove throughout – especially through the use of “non-traditional percussion” (what IS the instrument on “Black Sky” – it sounds like a bath tub).  Of course, producer Burnett would use this technique more effectively for Robert Plant & Alison Krauss’ breakthrough Raising Sand.

So, what happened this time around?  The album did crack the Billboard Albums Chart (albeit for one week). Again, not exactly the desired outcome.  The big rock sound of the  record could’ve easily fit in with the post-Grunge material that was all over the radio at the time.  But, again, Phillips was left standing at the altar.

But, that’s not the end of the story.  Time has been very good to Martinis & Bikinis.  It now frequently shows up on “best of the Nineties” lists.  While these inclusions don’t manage to fill Phillips’ wallet, she can take comfort knowing that what she created back then has had a lasting impact.   And, perhaps it’s all about timing – just one year later, Alanis Morissette would break through with her own brand of gritty rock (although hers was a lot more sexually charged than Phillips’).

This new deluxe edition is augmented by several bonus tracks, including a string-laden version of “I Need Love,” and a newly-recorded rendition of “Strawberry Road,” which imparts a longing that was not present in the original.

A record that still sounds fresh today.  –Tony Peters