In the age of "alternative," "pop" is a filthy word; the very whisper of it
implies a haunted house of smile-on-your-brother platitudes, cloying
hit parade bubblegum, dancers, hair stylists. Occasionally it's a fair
argument, as a visit to the dungeon of today's Top 40 bears out.
But Sam Phillips thankfully remembers its other, original meaning, the one
that conveyed both mass appeal and a willingness to experiment, the one
that could envelop albums as varied as the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds," Marvin
Gaye's "What's Going On," Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" and Blondie's "Parallel
Lines" in its three letters. Phillips' fourth album, "Omnipop," doesn't quite
stand with those classics. But in taking their cue, she winds up with one of
the most fascinating and surprising mainstream -- O.K., pop -- albums of the year.
Surprising, because the album marks the end of Phillips' slow climb up from
mediocrity. After removing herself from the Christian pop ghetto in the
mid-'80s, she joined with husband-producer T Bone Burnett and some
high-profile sessionmen (including Elvis Costello and Van Dyke Parks) to
record a pair of miserably derivative albums, "The Indescribable Wow" (1988)
and "Cruel Inventions" (1991). Big production remained key on 1994's
"Martinis & Bikinis," but this time Phillips' songwriting merited the sonic
touches that graced it. Her voice was plaintive and impassioned where once
it came off as merely whiny; songs like "Same Changes" and "I Need Love"
resonated as Byrdsian homages instead of just pale imitations. It was a
nifty balancing act, one that landed her both on the "Melrose Place"
soundtrack and on critics' Top 10 lists.
"Omnipop" is a more daring work, a savvy hopscotch through various styles
that rarely loses its sense of accessibility. True to its title, it's a
cornucopia of found sounds, dense with wah-wahs, strums, honks, thuds and
rhumbas. "Zero Zero Zero!", the album's first single, revels in its layers of
percussion, while the instrumental "(Skeleton)" features an array of synthesizer
and guitar noises. Adding to the weirdness, the minute-long "Compulsive Gambler"
tinged by punk, while "Animals on Wheels" offers an oblique waltz.
More often, though, the production is less playful and more utilitarian.
The album's moodier ballads sound appealingly sinister and claustrophobic,
with Phillips' voice usually creeping out from behind a scrim of guitar
feedback. Lyrically, "Omnipop" is mostly an album about use and abuse
by culture, technology, or other human beings. "Entertainmen," which
opens the album, gets the point across immediately; from an orchestra of
distorted guitars, twisted and cutting phrases rise to the top: "He asked her
to spread her magazines all across the floor/ He finally found his bathing
beauty/ She was a girl worth waiting for." More introspective songs like "Your
Hands" and "Where Are You Taking Me" counter Phillips' panicked vocals against
restrained, neo-blues backdrops. The appeal is voyeuristic, Phillips
guiltily allowing us to listen to stories of broken relationships while a distant
string section serenades. Or, as she puts it in "Plastic is Forever,"
"pain is pleasure when it's televised."
Which isn't to say that "Omnipop" is depressing, just mature and informed.
The irresistably-titled "Faster Pussycat to the Library!" (about guiding a lover
through bookshelves for further research) has a brazenly upbeat lilt to it, and
"Slapstick Heart"'s litany of romantic failures ends the album on a note of
brave contemplation. Phillips' success isn't so much that she's crafted such
an honest album, but that she's presented the honesty in a fashion both
intriguing and listenable. Because while "pop" doesn't have to be a dirty word,
it doesn't have to mean playing it safe either.