By Mike Dunn
Every time I review a country record that remains true to the style’s roots and is honest and heartfelt, I’m tempted to write a lengthy diatribe on the state of the art form. Unfortunately, that’s not only self-indulgent, it’s also a disservice to someone like Tom Phillips, who’s spent his entire career making straight up country music and has never felt the need to subvert his work to the whims of the McCheeseburger factory of corporate country.
Phillips’ latest, Plastic Machine, is his first with his new band, The DT’s, and his second with producer Lorrie Matheson. The opener, “Distance,” sets the tone for the honesty of the record, with Phillips writing liberating and heavy lines about his past as a hard drinker, backed by a clean mix featuring Matheson laying down some Exile-era Jimmy Miller piano out front. “Deeper Blue” kicks off in classic prairie country rock style, a buck-forty sunshine straightaway, with Geoff Brock’s guitar drenched in Leslie tone before dropping into slinky Keith Richards riffs. Deicha Carter’s lead vocal on the cut is a real find – there’s a lot of Susan Tedeschi in her tone and she doesn’t hold back anything, while sisters Shaye and Sydney Zadravec are on point with their harmonies throughout, adding just the right doo-wops and oohs to fill out the vocals. “Dry As A Desert Bone” unflinchingly lays bare Phillips’ past with liquor. The title cut finds Phillips pensively regarding the trappings of modern life, invoking an image of screen-addled citizens walking down the street in full distraction. “Death of Love” has been years in the making, Phillips having commented in the past that he could never get the vibe right on a record. Here, it gets a Tex-Mex feel with Tim Leacock and Ian Grant swinging a cool hesitation groove in the rhythm section while Matheson’s addition of organ is a nice compliment, as is the Tijuana Brass feel in the horns.
Country music has always been run through with threads of self-abuse and reflection – it’s what makes it one of the best hangover styles there is. The danger in that is that artists feel like they have to maintain those myths and illusions for the sake of authenticity. Modern country is selling self-abuse by the ounce, with little post-party reflection. Tom Phillips’ Plastic Machine isn’t preachy in its self-reflection, it’s just honest, and it’s some of Phillips’ best work.Tom Philips