Sam Phillips: Don't Do Anything

The jewel-case graphics for Sam Phillips's Don't Do Anything dangle these teasers, all circled with red pen like a teacher ticking off major elements of a theme: "An album of intrigue, look at all you get — moods and diversions of a natural star, a high degree of male hanky-panky, the smartest lines are not in the script!" Phillips's pop template has evolved since her brilliant 1994 debut Martinis and Bikinis; on Don't Do Anything, she's had love come and go, bringing more questions than answers. Scored with grungy, static-laden guitars, drums and percussion that sound like inmates clanging spoons on the cell-block bars, and piano and banjo that call up spirits of dying romances, Don't Do Anything is anti-easy listening: It has serious atomic weight and feels as much like art as music.

Producing herself for the first time, Phillips (the former Mrs. T-Bone Burnett) elicits a wall of sound from her small ensemble like a brush scraping fresh canvas, somehow finding hope in the hurt on brilliant tracks like the self-deprecating and sarcastic "Little Plastic Life" and the striking, off-kilter, Euro-dancehall-­sounding "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us," which Robert Plant and Allison Krauss covered on last year's Raising Sand. The title track, with lines like "I love you when you don't do anything, when you're useless I love you more," is as first-class a reflection on love and its workings as we're ever likely to hear. Phillips's intense, scratchy script, filled with her emotional confusion and internal pain, makes Don't Do Anything a pop treasure of the highest order.

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William Michael Smith