"A Boot and a Shoe"
It's been more than 15 years since singer-songwriter Sam Phillips released "The Indescribable Wow," launching a pop career that has grown curiouser and curiouser ever since. Her latest release is arguably the most peculiar -- and peculiarly entertaining -- collection yet, shaped by myriad pop influences that reach back to Weimar cabaret and Tin Pan Alley.
Phillips is at her best when she sounds out of sync with the times, which is often the case here. But more important, she sounds out of sorts with her own emotions, struggling to make sense of love, loss and longing. Many of the songs on "A Boot and a Shoe" have a confessional slant, beginning with the otherwise jaunty "How to Quit," in which Phillips confides: "When no one's listening I have so much to say." The lyrics also have a torchy quality that suits Phillips's husky voice, and though she has moved on from her early fascination with pure pop pleasures, it's impossible to listen to "Open the World," "Hole in My Pocket" and "Love Changes Everything" without detecting the lasting influence of Lennon and McCartney. Currently separated from producer T-Bone Burnett, Phillips and her husband continue to make intriguing music in the studio -- sparsely arranged and yet unusually colorful and quirky. Sure, "A Boot and a Shoe" lacks the sheer melodic charm found on previous Phillips recordings, but its now clattering, now dreamy, string-swept mix of pop, country, gospel and blues pop sounds offers plenty of compensation.
Singer-songwriter Eszter Balint's "Mud" is a more dark and despairing affair, an album that begins with a taunt -- "Do you like looking for trouble" -- and ends with more than a hint of remorse: "I mistook the spark in the eyes of a stranger." In between are several songs, including "Your God," "Weeds" and "If," that reveal Balint's gift for venting in pointed and sometimes poetic ways.
-- Mike Joyce
Appearing Sunday at IOTA. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Sam Phillips, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8130; to hear Eszter Balint, press 8131. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)