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Sam Phillips: Fan Dance

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Sam Phillips

Album: Fan Dance
Label: Nonesuch

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A good songwriter can make a cliché sound fresh—otherwise, wouldn't the subject of love have been exhausted long ago?—so maybe a great songwriter is one who can rescue a questionable turn of phrase. "Nostalgia isn't what it used to be," Sam Phillips sings on Fan Dance's "Taking Pictures," but the context and performance somehow make it sound profound. Filled with such moments, Fan Dance confirms that Phillips has quietly developed into one of the most assured writers and performers in the underpopulated field of adult pop. Her moody, spare new album is an exercise in small touches, from the Asian flourishes of the title track to the lazy echo of "Say What You Mean." Never overselling her material, she lets the hooks sneak up on listeners. Phillips' songs are catchy in an almost subliminal way; their power doesn't always fully manifest until the inevitable return visits. The sympathetic, understated production of husband T-Bone Burnett helps, as do the performances of an A-list cast of supporting musicians, including Jim Keltner, Marc Ribot, Gillian Welch, and Van Dyke Parks. It's Phillips' show, however, and she rises to the occasion with husky, haunting performances on an album that could serve as the extended soundtrack to a lonely last call.