Published August 19, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

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.

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a regular contributor to Salon.

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