Shawn Phillips,
No Category
(Fat Jack, 2002)

As fair warning, I'd never heard of Shawn Phillips before his 2002 release No Category. Surprisingly, Phillips' epic background includes having taught guitar to a then-unknown Joni Mitchell and co-writing "Sunshine Superman" with Donovan in 1966, for a start. Learning of this history only recently, I'm in an excellent position to answer one question: How does Shawn Phillips' latest release sound to the utterly uninitiated?

From the opening "Moonshine," the answer would be surprising, mystical and oddly funky. An ambient introduction lasts until the thunderous bass arrives, and then Phillips anchors this creation with some slippery, scat-like vocals and evocative but nebulous lyrics. It's a bold start, and the diversity continues with "The Power of a Woman," an easygoing but not cliched country folk tune, and the bouncy brass of the anti-capitalist "Moneydance." The closing "The Peace Song" opens with an unsettling ambient intro, morphs into a folk song, then finally evolves into a full band fanfare.

The guitar playing here is solid, split between Phillips and Mike Miller, while the legendary Leland Sklar handles bass with impressive talent. Paul Buckmaster brings string and brass arrangement skills to the table, and J. Peter Robinson handles piano, organ and synthesizers. These accomplished musicians bring depth to the arrangements, from the string quartet on "One Way Ticket" to the bluegrass stomp in "The Power of a Woman."

Despite all of this musical success, there are two large drawbacks to No Category. The first, unfortunately, is Phillips' voice. While he possesses a wide vocal range and a surprisingly comfortable falsetto, he lacks projection. It's as if Phillips is singing entirely from his nasal passages and not from his lungs, often using an unusual, wobbly delivery that can work but sounds odd at other times. "I Will Never Leave" is a serious ode to faithfulness, but when Philips produces a slow falsetto of doo-doo-doo vocalizations mid-song, it takes a special mindset to avoid giggling.

The second drawback is Phillips' narrative voice. Using widely varying styles, his writing reach sometimes exceeds his grasp. The ballad "Most of Us Don't Understand at All" is sonically fine, but after generic lyrics cataloging fate's whims, only the bland faux poetry of "Clouds create the universe of love" ends the song. "The Peace Song" is an epic extolling human tranquility, but its philosophy is confined to unseaworthy metaphors like "May the ship of peace be on her course," and the piece just ends up seeming overwrought.

And then there's the minute-long "Par for the Course." A live song opening with the racket of an inattentive crowd, it blows through its one verse vignette of country-rock road weariness, delivers its expletive-tipped payload, and summarily self-destructs. Underneath the sparse applause from one amused patron, Philips mutters an acidic "Yeah, thanks," and the disc ends. It's a microcosmic education in life experience and pointed humor.

Gems like this aside, I suspect it would be more entertaining to swap stories with the intriguing Phillips than it is to listen to this recording. No Category would make a superb preamble to a conversation -- and hearing the life experiences swirling behind these songs would be worth a great deal indeed.

by Ken Fasimpaur
12 November 2005

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