Let’s deal with the hair issue first. Shawn Phillips totally had the most lustrous, shiny, magical, dreamy head of hair like, ever. It’s to his credit that he was proud of it and wanted to share it with us. Thank you, Shawn. Thank you for the over fifty photographs of you featured on the cover of Contribution (with more on the lyric sheet). We really, really get a great impression of the smoothness and silkiness and phenomenal length of your hair. The cover to Second Contribution features it in all its regal beauty, from the rear, artfully arranged over the shoulders of your ... cape. We really appreciate the skills of the stylist to get it looking all glossy and long like that. It’s gorgeous! Apart from a tragic incident with a powerboat screw sometime in the seventies, which denied us its effulgent aureola for a few years (and how elegant of Shawn to thank his hairdresser in sleevenotes for helping him through the tonsorial trauma!) his hair has continued to be a marvel to behold, deservedly occupying the entire back cover of his recent-ish ‘No Category’ album.
Right. Enough with the hair already. Phillips, a Texan, toted his guitar over to the UK in the mid-sixties and warbled his tonsils in coffee bars (topics; the unjustness of society, badness of war, etc) where he made friends with Donovan (that’s Shawn playing sitar on Don’s smash hits). He cut a couple of forgettable folky albums called, er, nope, I forget. Then he scarfed back all the acid he could push his face into and his music got suddenly wonderful. Amazing. Back when ‘Contribution’ came out, the only way you got to hear about him was word of mouth (for younger readers, this was something like the internet, but without the porn). My pal Jim got a copy from somewhere, maybe it transmogrified out of the ether. Those were the days of joss sticks and candle chimes with little angels tinging bells. And dope. A lot of crackling grass with Afghan black crumbled in. And you’d paint swirls and stuff on the wall in poster paint. Because that’s what you did in those days. You didn’t ask why, you got stoned out of your mind and you listened to ‘Contribution’. Because it is that rare thing, a genuinely psychedelic album with the very minimum of psychedelic effects (a little, and very effective, guitar phasing, and that’s it). The head-swimmingly lovely ‘L Ballade’ is at once meditative and hallucinogenic, his voice descending to subterranean caverns under the plashing of harpstrings, and lyrics evoking the lysergic; “and the light will splinter through open clouds, and you’ll look straight in a face like the sun.” Nobody else has ever sounded quite like this, and it either puts Space Dust on your synapses or leaves you unmoved.
And he had such an extraordinary band on that album - Traffic. Plus Paul Buckmaster. Plus Peter Robinson. I mean - Lord Sutch’s Heavy Friends were like butterfly farts next to these guys. The music sounds nothing like Traffic, though. Nothing at all. Phillips’ voice is even more extraordinary than his hair. I know, I know ... you’re shocked at the very idea that anything could be more sheerly beautiful than his hair, but it’s true. Several extravagant octaves of reedy, bang-in-the-middle-of-the-note vocal dexterity. With an ability to hold a yogic note long enough to allow us to go and fix a sandwich and get back before he’s finished. He also likes to scat sing (as opposed, I imagine to sing scat), and he’s brilliant at it. And his tenor glides as smoothly into a falsetto as a bass. Lyrically, he’s all over the place. Hopelessly ambitious (if you have a tendency to use the word “pretentious” you could possibly apply it here to your own satisfaction), his vocabulary is one of the widest in rock. Which doesn’t necessarily make for direct, simple songs that speak of shared experiences. He’s not a Romantic singer-songwriter in the sense that, oh, everyone else is. When he does power down the verbal octane, the results are refreshing, but still a little cold. He never struck me as a warm, happy-go-lucky type, and he’s continued to plough his own artistic and possibly charmless furrow for decades. He also has an unfortunate tendency to hector (he’s a Texan) that gets tiresome. I doubt he picks up many new listeners, but I also doubt he’s lost a single one, either. A remarkably consistent artist, his consistency lies in his adventurousness, which is essentially based in musicality, as opposed to style and stance.
After that dazzling “first” album, he recorded a couple more in similar vein before getting into a kind of hybrid jazz-funk thing. With strings, sometimes. Sounds ghastly, I know, but the sheer musicality of the albums has made them constant pleasures over the years. He returned to the lush orchestrations of the Buckmaster years with 2004’s ‘No Category’, over thirty years on and sounding like it was later the same day. Unfair to call it a return to form - Phillips never lost it. Or his hair. The interesting thing about ‘No Category’ is that it was funded in advance by fans. His last contract with a major (A&M) ran out in ’76, after the sublime ‘Rumplestiltskin’s Resolve’ failed to bother the rack-jobbers, so Phillips used the internet and his legion of loyal fans to fund the album. Which they then had to buy. Wo-ah! Smart guy, right? Those who donated enough got a credit on the CD notes. Those who didn’t were just happy to buy the album they’d helped finance anyway, and nobody was a loser. Future of the music business? Bare-faced cheek? Whatever, Buckmaster would have busted the budget otherwise, and it’s a very nice album.
It’s hard to offer a buyers’ guide, because Phillips is such an outside bet. There’s a lot going against him if you like love songs in singer-songwriter style, or (ulp) “Americana”. He’s never pretended to authenticity, never been interested in that lo-fi back porch a-rockin’ and a-pickin’. He’s a man with his own vision, and he clearly couldn’t give a rat’s ass for what you think. He just wants to get into the studio with some shit-hot musicians and groove a little. Or float off on clouds of his own wordless harmonies. Or have a rant against how politicians and capitalists are, like, totally bad for the earth. Me, I couldn’t live without any of his albums, they’ve never grown stale or dated (I’ve done that for them), but I can quite see why his fanbase isn’t as universal as, say, Neil Young’s. Or Neil Sedaka’s. But if this think-piece has piqued your curiosity, you may care to hunt down a listen to the following:
Contribution: His third, but first “real” album.
Faces: a compilation of “old” studio tracks that hangs together amazingly well. Some of his simplest songs are here, and some of his wildest excursions into the vocal ozone. Plus an orchestrated version of “L Ballade”. If the opening track “Landscape” doesn’t grab you, move right along, he has nothing to offer you.
Rumplestiltskin’s Resolve: Insanely subtle grooves, beautiful tewns, and Phillips reins in his larynx a little to good effect. One shite track (“Wailing Wall” - where Shawn gives man’s inhumanity to man a good kicking for us) interrupts the flow, though. His scraps album ‘Spaced’ contains some great session outtakes from this album, including a Jazz Funk Great in “I Don’t Want To Leave you - I Just Came To Say Goodbye”.
Don’t get me wrong - I wouldn’t claim that Phillips was a great artiste. His obvious faults are off-putting to the Wider Demographic. But his albums are unique, and curious, and worthwhile, and occasionally beautiful, and that’s enough.