Shawn Phillips,
Shawn
(Columbia-UK, 1966;
Wounded Bird Records, 1998)

In the liner notes to this CD, reissued through the good graces of Phillips' 100 or so close friends and admirers, David Berkwood says it's tempting just to say "mixture as before" and it is. The mixture on this, Phillips' second album, is quite similar to the mix in I'm a Loner. Among the thirteen tracks, one bonus and twelve from the original mono vinyl, are a song with biblical reference, a Broadway musical song, a song about bells and overall, the story of the rootless wanderer. There are differences though in that in this CD, Phillips has included some more obviously autobiographical references. There is more of a southern U.S. sensibility to this album and, although in this one Phillips doesn't give us such a defiant loner, there is the overriding theme of an inability to connect or make emotional commitments. And again, the voice and guitar are almost always outstanding.

This CD contains five original songs by Phillips and one traditional song arranged by him. It's an eclectic group from the celebratory "London Town" to the ironic "Miniver Cheevy" to the idealism of "Theme for the March on Washington."

"Seek and Ye Shall Find," the traditional spiritual arranged by Phillips, is OK but must have come from a different source than I ever heard. There's a quantitative anomaly here. Phillips' lyrics have his Lord's love come tricklin' down. Trickling? The word I learned was tumblin', which seems to me to more closely represent how ol' greybeard is said to dispense the stuff.

Phillips has spent a lot of his professional life in England, where it seems he gathered a following soon after his arrival there. "London Town" celebrates that relationship with the people there and being young and footloose and traveling on the cheap.

"Theme for the March on Washington" is full of youthful idealism. In those days, we were just trying out the vocabulary of equality and Phillips' naive declaration that it makes no difference if you're white or dark comes from that "melting pot" mentality that so many well-intentioned people hoped would work. The color of one's skin does make a difference and it's that difference we need to be honoring and celebrating, not denying, or worse, colonizing.

"Miniver Cheevy" was a strange character and the lyrics here describe that strangeness ironically enough for a guy out of time who "missed the medieval grace of iron clothing."

"Storm," the twelfth cut on the CD and the last original to Phillips on the vinyl master, is a bit awkward. There are some good lyrics about a guy who stands out in a storm looking at his (former?) lover's lit window who can't find the wherewithal either to go in or go away. The lyrics and generally inspired guitar are broken up with some scat-like la-da-da-da business that I think is supposed to describe the intensity of the storm or the protagonist's emotional turmoil, or both. It doesn't work.

There's a lot of weather on this CD. "Summer Came," the fifth Phillips original and the bonus track, is a much later piece, I am sure. I think he listened to Petula Clark's "Downtown" and the Ben E. King/Coasters' "Up on the Roof" and threw in a fillip of civil rights and some synthesizer and wrote his own take on the theme. The other musicians on this cut aren't listed but they do a good job. This is the only cut that isn't just Phillips' voice and 12-string. The other weather-related cut, "Cloudy Summer Afternoon," has some really good guitar rain.

For more on the theme of alienation and inability to connect, "Another Country," a poem by Rod McKuen who was all the rage back then, puts love just out of reach of the singer. It's as forgettable as most of McKuen's stuff.

The three songs that allude to Phillips' roots are the best on the album. "Old Blue" is about a good huntin' dawg (with lyrics by Alan Lomax). It seemingly spans Phillips' vocal range and he holds onto the music in the notes at both ends. Phillips spent some time as a coal miner in his younger years and is able to give authenticity to the anger and frustration of "Coal Tattoo," a song about the struggle and small rewards of coal mining. "Black Girl," the best cut on the album, needs to be sung by someone who has lived with the circumstances of the song. The situation described is at once surreal and commonplace and Phillips' flawless guitar and vocal delivery evoke that duality. Unlike the Animals' shallow interpretation of the song, Phillips' conveys understanding.

In the song-from-a-Broadway-musical category, this album features Bernstein's "Maria" from West Side Story. Phillips plays an insistent, Bolero style guitar accompaniment to the song, and it's good. What's not good is the vocal delivery. This is a song about discovery and it needs to convey the knowledge that the thing discovered is also forbidden. It's not a dreamy song and the words shouldn't be run together. It loses its power unless each word is enunciated clearly with awe, defiance or tenderness.

And finally, in the guitar-as-bell category, the Seeger/Davis song "The Bells of Rhymney" gives Phillips a chance for some awesome guitar work and he takes it and runs with it. Amazing.

[ by J. Higgins-Rosebrook ]



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