Shawn Phillips – The Wounded Bird Recordings
Dirty Linen, Issue #80, February/March 1999
Though it might seem to some that the 70s were a bit of a musical wasteland, save for punk, new wave, and a little jazz, there was a ton of great music being created just outside the mainstream ear of commercial radio. One such light in this musical dark age was Texas singer/songwriter Shawn Phillips. In the early 60s, Phillips recorded two albums of folk music for Capitol Records. However, he spent the nearly 10 years thereafter in other pursuits. He is said to have taught Joni Mitchell how to play the guitar. He co-wrote Donovan’s Sunshine Superman album and even appeared in a movie, Run With The Wind. He was the original lead singer for the Broadway musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, and spent some time sharing living quarters with Tim Hardin. In 1970, he resurfaced on A&M records with the first of nine albums for them over the next 10 years. Though Phillips went on to record several more albums for RCA, Chameleon and Imagine Records, it is the A&M years which are considered his finest work.
Ranging from rock to free form jazz and brief experiments with electronic music, Phillips brought his trademark 12-string acoustic guitar mastery, image-laden lyrics and staggering four-octave voice to the service of his uplifting and spiritually aware music. Phillips (now a volunteer firefighter back in Texas) is celebrating his 35th anniversary as a recording artist and still tours despite having survived triple bypass heart surgery and three decades of a rocky career. Eight of his classic discs (six from the A&Myears and his first two folk albums) are being released by the upstate New York-based Wounded Bird Records. Following are the first five, as well as Second Contribution, which has been available through A&Mrecords since 1988.
Wounded Bird WOU 4241
(1998; rec. 1970)
Contribution is, for all intents and purposes, the first for Shawn Phillips in the guise that the general public knew him: the long-haired, folk-rock visionary. All the elements of his A&M years were already in place: beautifully atmospheric soundscapes (“L Ballade”) in which Phillips could stretch his voice to the fullest, as well as some wry social commentary (“Not a Question”) and rock ‘n’ roll pyrotechnics (“Screamer for Phlyses.”) Also evident was Phillips’ tendency to write some of the most densely packed lyrics in pop. Needless to say, it only served to feed the all too image-hungry heads of young record buyers of the time. Although no additional musicians’ credits have been included on the original LP or the CD re-release, it is easily assumed that Phillips is joined by longtime collaborators Peter Robinson on keyboards and cellist Paul Buckmaster. The best tracks are still those that center on Phillips’ gorgeous voice and 12-string acoustic guitar work, multi-tracked to produce a many layered, kaleidoscope effect, as in the complex and beautiful “Withered Roses” and “Lovely Lady.”
Wounded Bird WOU 4342
(1998; rec. 1971)
Phillips’ next album was called Second Contribution (see below) and his following effort, Collaboration, was originally released in 1971. A very convincing Spanish flamenco guitar opens the album and segues immediately into “Us We Are,” a classic piece of Phillips angst and melodrama, tempered with a new addition: a horn section. Thereafter, Phillips made good use of brass and strings, which at best was reminiscent of Blood Sweat and Tears, and never fell much below Chicago’s better workouts. Later on, there is some phase-shifted space folk on the subtle and psychedelic “Moonshine,” the darkly acoustic “What’s Happenin’ Jim!,” and the 12-string funk syncopated “Armed,” which features what is possibly the longest held note sung in rock. Also featured is a little cosmic irreverence on “Spaceman” and Yes-inspired space-rock on “Times of a Madman, Trials of a Thief.” There’s even a feedback-saturated boogie instrumental, appropriately titled “The Only Logical Conclusion, or Get Up Off Your Ass and Dance.” The album ends with another slow-burning epic, “Springwind,” featuring some particularly lovely piano playing by Peter Robinson.
Wounded Bird Records WOU 4402
(1998; rec. 1973)
An anthology of outtakes called Faces was released in 1972 as a break before the next studio album. Bright White came out in 1973 and contained some of Phillips’ most memorable songs, though it was a little uneven on production. Phillips was clearly experimenting, and at times this worked very nicely, as in the album’s rocking and uplifting opening title track. That track was the obvious bid for a single, as it featured some of the then hot shots of the L.A. studio scene, like Craig Doerge, Lee Sklar, Russ Kunkel and Danny Kortchmar, while the rest of the album found Phillips working with his usual musical collaborators. Elsewhere, you have an electric guitar driven love song, “Salty Tears”; a Cat Stevens-style ballad, “Victoria Emmanuel”; and “Technotronic Lad,” which gave Phillips a chance to do some vocal acrobatics against a Moog-painted backdrop.
Wounded Bird Records WOU 3662
(1998; rec. 1974)
All other roads lead up to this album, where Phillips takes the best of what he had done so far and weaves it into a single cohesive whole. Drawing the finest musicians he had previously worked with around him, Phillips is backed by Robinson, Buckmaster and Ann Odell’s expressive mellotron playing, as well as the precise attack of Barry de Souza’s drums and the jazz fusion bass of John Gustafson. The result is like having the Mahavishnu Orchestra supplemented by equally expressive and inspiring vocals and lyrics. The recording opens with the funk fusion of “January First,” followed by the majestic “Starbright” and “Breakthrough,” a stark, nerves-bared tribute to the son he never knew and the road not taken. “Ninety Two Years” is a hard-rockin’ call to arms against runaway technology, and “Mr. President” is a hilarious look at post-Nixon politics. “Song For Ireland” is perhaps Phillips’ most focused political condemnation, while still remaining compassionate. The album closes with “Talking in the Garden,” which segues into the full-on electric, funk rave of the title track. The album is held together by some finely placed, between-song instrumental tracks as “Plainscape” and “Cape Barras.”
Do You Wonder
Wounded Bird WOU 4539
(1998; rec. 1975)
Perhaps in response to A&M allowing Phillips a certain amount of artistic freedom on his last album, Do You Wonder seems by comparison a much more conscious stab at a commercial record. The record cover contained the famous (and controversial) image of a nude pubescent bather, and the musicians from the previous album have all been jettisoned (except for Robinson) in favor of some slick L.A. players. The title track smacks of early disco influences with some definitely questionable lyrics (“Woman, you’re so enticing/ You’re the cake and not the icing/ Can’t you see?”). Still, there are enough songs to make this worthwhile, including the Little Feat-ish “City to City” and the smoldering guitar gospel/rock of “Believe in Life.”
Wounded Bird Records has done a fantastic job of reprinting all the original liner notes and album art, though Collaboration’s original gatefold and Furthermore’s dye-cut sleeve don’t seem the same in CD format. Both the early Capitol folk records, Shawn and I’m A Loner, will be released in January 1999, as will Phillips’ A&M Transcendence album.
Wounded Bird Records
P. O .Box 48
Guilderland, NY 12084-0048;
(1988; rec. 1970)
Second Contribution was the most commercially successful Shawn Phillips release for A&MRecords, which is probably why it and 1995’s retrospective Shawn Phillips: The A&M Years are the only two recordings his old label have chosen to keep in print. While not the singularly best Phillips record, it does contain some of his most memorable moments including the amazingly long-titled “She Was Waitin’ for Her Mother at the Station in Torino and You Know I Love You Baby but It’s Getting Too Heavy to Laugh.” This album also marks the first outing of Phillips’ later habit of letting one song flow into the next to form a larger story. Highlights include “Songs For Sagittarians,” the string-bathed “Schmaltz Waltz/F Sharp Splendor,” and the sweet and tender “Steel Eyes.” Second Contribution also contains what may be Phillips’ most famous song “The Ballad of Casey Deiss.” Once a late night FM radio favorite, it tells the true story of the mythological death of one of Phillips’ close friends
Copyright © Dirty Linen: Folk, Electric Folk, Traditional and World Music.