Sam Phillips’ career arc would confound the most eclectic music fan. She’s ventured from formulaic Christian schmaltz to some of the least formulaic music imaginable, from a brilliant evocation of ’60s girl-group pop (1988’s The Indescribable Wow) to ornate Beatles-influenced psychedelia and baroque arrangements (1994’s Martinis and Bikinis) to stripped-down acoustic albums that revel in the open spaces and sparse, uncluttered accompaniment (2001’s Fan Dance). She returns with A Boot and a Shoe, an album that, perhaps unsurprisingly, sounds like nothing that has come before it.
A Boot and A Shoe is propulsive, rhythmic chamber music; equal parts Tom Waits banging and clanging and Emerson Quartet stringed beauty. If that sounds like an odd and intriguing combination, it is. Carla Azar’s and Jim Keltner’s drums and husband/producer T Bone Burnett’s upright bass are mixed well to the fore, and there’s a driving quality, almost a fierceness to them. In stark contrast, the string quartet accompanying most of these songs (that provides the primary musical counterpoint to Phillips’ vocals) is subtle, whimsical, and endlessly creative. On the sweetly beautiful waltz “Reflecting Light” it conjures memories of an old-fashioned oompah band in the park, while on the gently swaying “Draw Man” they soar off into a gorgeous cacophony suggesting Jimi Hendrix and bombs bursting in air.
As always, Phillips’ lyrics are enigmatic and provocative, surreal dreamscapes that probe the intersection of faith and doubt, love both human and divine. “I was broken when you got me / With holes that would let the light through,” she sings on the album opener “How to Quit,” and it’s hard to escape the spiritual connotations. On “If I Could Write,” Phillips is more terrestrial-focused, musing on the ebb and flow of marriage and commitment. As is her wont, she slips in a not-so-subtle dig at the Christian music industry that at one time longed to crown her Jesus’ Favorite Pop Princess: “Camera can’t find me / I’m officially astray,” she sings. “When no one’s listening I have so much to say.”
And she does. Some listeners may grouse about the length of this album (a brief 34 minutes), but there is absolutely no filler here, and the songs open up new vistas of nuance and meaning with repeated listenings. A Boot and A Shoe will appeal equally to fans of adventurous adult alternative music or fans of contemplative, spiritually oriented songcraft. Either way, it’s a kick.