Singer-songwriter Sam Phillips never shies away from change. Over her 17-year recording career, she's evolved from Christian pop star to critically acclaimed secular soul-searcher whose albums range from lavish to the experimental. Yet, just as the shambling, folky title track on her first new collection in five years dangles revelations while keeping secrets, the Glendale native proves she can still be surprising, even when you expect the unexpected.
As stark and spare as 1996's "Omnipop" was overblown, the dozen selections on the 33-minute "Fan Dance" put the focus back on Phillips' compelling voice and subtle melodies. Abetted by producer-husband T Bone Burnett and such typically stellar contributors as guitarist Marc Ribot, singer-bassist Gillian Welch and arranger Van Dyke Parks, she creates a chain of intimate rooms in which to ponder, lament, and celebrate personal and creative choices.
"Nostalgia isn't what it used to be," she whispers on the wry pop tune "Taking Pictures," underscoring her determination to not repeat the past. Not everything here immediately stands out, but many tracks leave a lasting impression, from the frustrated drama of the gorgeous, cello-driven "Wasting My Time," which recalls Elvis Costello's "Juliet Letters" work with the Brodsky Quartet, to the drifting, quietly illuminating "Below Surface."
Phillips' smart pop may be anathema to the instant-gratification crowd, but like-minded listeners will be endlessly engaged.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two (fair), three (good) and four (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.