Now Spinning: Shawn Phillips – Second Contribution

‘I don’t wanna hear old sad bastard music, Barry, I just want something I can ignore!

A charming description, courtesy of the Rob Gordon character from High Fidelity (scene included in the film version only), used to describe an apparently forgettable if pleasant Belle & Sebastian album. A scene so memorable, that Belle & Sebastian, all these years later and having well-established themselves as indie-cult favorites over the two decades since, will always live on in my mind as nothing more than music that I can ignore, if enjoyably. And that brings us to today’s Monday Morning Mixtape, the extravagant hippie snapshot that is the Second Contribution album from Shawn Phillips.

A bit of a cult figure from the 1960s, Shawn Phillips is hardly a household name, but possessed a unique combination of talent and luck that had him bouncing around the music scene like a musical Forrest Gump. Like many others, Phillips was captivated by folk music in the early sixties and started to make a name for himself in the same worlds that launched the careers of Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin, Judy Collins and many more during the start of the decade. The son of a best-selling novelist, Phillips had one advantage over much of his musical competition – some level of family wealth that allowed him to travel extensively, and found him ranging from his adolescent home in Texas to folk scenes in both Greenwich Village and the Bay Area, developing his skills and making inroads with the musical community. In classic 1960s fashion, he next departed for India to study sitar, but a stop in England waylaid the trip when a young Donovan approached him in a music store with, ‘Hey, you wanna go smoke a joint and have something to eat?’ The immortal words that beget all memorable collaborations. Soon, Phillips had become Donovan’s musical foil, composing the music for ‘Season Of The Witch’, ‘Sunshine Superman’ and more, strengthening Donovan’s child-like folk songs with increased musical ambition and a touch of psychedelic instrumental muscle. England became not only a temporary home for Phillips, but the true launching pad for his career. In the blink of an eye, he was suddenly in EMI Studios (soon to be known as Abbey Road), recruited by Paul McCartney to sing backing vocals on ‘Lovely Rita’ as The Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. He also kicked off a close friendship with George Harrison during this time, immediately becoming Harrison’s sitar teacher. Not a bad resume before one’s 24th birthday.

When it came to musical ability, Shawn Phillips was one of the more unique talents of his generation, acquitting himself more than adequately on any number of instruments and displaying a wide vocal range. A musical Swiss Army Knife if you will, it’s easy to understand why he quickly emerged as a go-to collaborator. By the end of the decade, he had rightly earned his own record deal with A&M Records, and called on some of his new British friends, Steve Winwood, Chris Wood and Jim Capaldi of Traffic, for support on his debut album, Contribution. A sprawling epic of layered acoustic guitars, psychedelic sitar rags and soaring orchestral arrangements, Contribution shares a certain DNA with Traffic’s debut album but is overloaded with substantially more ambition, both for better and for worse.

From the beginning, Phillips envisioned this project as a multi-album epic, and today’s soundtrack, Second Contribution, followed in 1971. In contrast to the swirl of psychedelic color covering the debut LP jacket, the stark photo on the cover of Second Contribution, featuring Phillips, back to the camera, strumming acoustic guitar, perhaps suggests a mellow and earthy effort in line with the more traditional singer/songwriter fare that was ubiquitously dominant in this 1971 year. Then you notice the first track is titled ‘She Was Waiting For Her Mother At The Station In Torino And You Know I Love You Baby But It’s Getting Too Heavy To Laugh’, and, perhaps with a laugh, you realize that absolutely nothing about this album will resemble normalcy.

When you drop the needle on the first groove, you’re welcomed by an extremely quiet, soothing drone of an A capella vocal from Phillips, before perhaps the worst use of the volume control I have ever heard on a mastered release, as the engineer suddenly and dramatically kicks the volume up a near staggering, off-putting degree with the start of the second line, like the extreme reverse of the famed Motown fade-outs. We’re barely a minute in, and already the album is audibly disorienting. Very slowly, the music starts to pick up to match the volume, with piano and an orchestral arrangement building in intensity along with Phillips soaring vocals, as the aggressive strum of an acoustic guitar gradually replaces the piano as the song’s central rhythm – and bam, out of nowhere, the rhythm’s evolved dramatically, with pulsating bass and drums pushing along an acoustic guitar and piano-based slinky groove reminiscent of the sound Bill Withers was simultaneously forging in the United States. As the rhythms continue to build, and strings, honky tonk piano and bursting horns find their way into the mix, it’s either a genius piece of layered sound or hippie ambition gone off the deep end. Or perhaps a little bit of both, but surprisingly fun for this listener. The music seamlessly transitions into the next track, repeating the familiar horn motif with the added influence of some Blue Note-inspired soul jazz style organ riffing.

Perhaps the first true jamband album, each track seamlessly segues into the next – and perfectly. For all of its overblown musical ambition featuring an overwhelming combination of arguably disparate musical styles, the music on Second Contribution gels remarkably well. The strings never sound out of place, or even cheesy; the horns can be a touch startling and surprising, yet you’ll find yourself quickly nodding along. The hazy rhythmic pulse of acoustic strumming, mellow keyboards, and understated tasteful electric guitar is reminiscent of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Deja Vu and associated solo albums that dominated the airwaves at the time, and the music is, by and large, a warm and fuzzy delight.

But for me personally, it rarely grows beyond that pleasant delight, handicapped by the dated language used in much of the lyrics, relegating it to my half-joking status as ‘music you can ignore.’ Despite the ambitious musical approach and stunning flow, there tends to be little variation in tempo and feel from track to track, causing the album to drag just a bit. Maybe the segues between each song are simply too good – too well crafted, too seamless, blurring each song together to such an extent that none stand out. The exception is ‘Lookin’ Up Lookin’ Down’, the one song that, theoretically, could have received radio airplay, with a gentle, stoned groove, featuring electric piano and funky guitar dueling with a swirling organ. The repetitive ‘Go slow’ chorus comes across as the album’s lyrical mantra, and effectively stands in stark opposition to the music, as the drums and organ push things to a near breakneck pace, building to breathtaking falsetto vocals that display Phillips’ full range.

Perhaps due to the fact that this music that was so groundbreaking and original but combined with lyrics that, while far from the cheesiest dribble penned in these immediate post-Summer of Love years, were simply not at the same level of creativity as the music, Second Contribution can be a fairly polarizing album. It’s been compared both to enthralling, ambitious spiritual masterworks like Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and to the cliched psychedelic pop of the Strawberry Alarm Clark.

The truth, of course, lies solely in the ears and mind of the listener. For this listener, neither of those shoes fit – but it’s a rather nice soundtrack to tune in and out of while half-awake, washing dishes, putting away laundry watering plants and going about Monday morning tasks. Music that you can ignore, or perhaps even enjoy as quite the pleasant background soundtrack. Maybe next week we’ll try out ‘Little Latin Lupe Lu’ – the Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels version.

Turntable: Thorens TD 160
Cartridge/Style: Pickering XV-15 w/ elliptical stylus manufactured by Rivertone
Amplifier: Marantz 2230
Speakers: KLH Model Six

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