Let’s settle this thing once and for all. Sam Phillips is not the second coming of the Beatles. Sure, even a cursory listen to Martinis and Bikinis–the new LP from the former Christian singer-songwriter, who first turned toward secular concerns with 1988’s The Indescribable Wow–will turn up countless moments of Fab Foreplay: irresistible harmonies, indelible choruses, even direct quotations from “Eleanor Rigby” and “Rain.” From the plaintive “Black Sky” to the atmospheric “Wheel of the Broken Voice,” Phillips’s songs strip pop to its purest possibilities: verse, chorus, bridge, repeat until satisfied. And any artist that not only records a song titled “Strawberry Road” but also covers John Lennon’s angst ‘n’ rage anthem “Gimme Some Truth” isn’t shy about admitting that she’s going down to Liverpool. But Phillips can’t be the Beatles. Why? Four Beatles, one Phillips. It’s as simple as that.

That may sound flip, but stay with me. Taking the stage at the Park West recently with a crack three-piece band (collaborator and husband T Bone Burnett on guitar, Josh Lovell on drums, and legendary session player Jerry Scheff on bass), Phillips stepped up to the mike and belted out “Circle of Fire,” an apocalyptic little ditty from Martinis and Bikinis. And then, standing stock-still center-stage as her stellar backing players kicked up a sonic cloud, she ably piloted her way through most of the rest of the songs from her new LP–from the bouncy “Baby I Can’t Please You” to the soaring “When I Fall” to the full-throated “I Need Love.” With power, precision, and even a little droll between-song patter, Phillips had the crowd in the palm of her hand.

So what’s wrong with this picture? Well, for one thing, no harmonies. Throughout the show Phillips handled vocals alone, and while she proved herself fully capable of hitting her marks, the lone-voice-in-the-wilderness renditions left something to be desired. On record, for instance, “Baby I Can’t Please You” relies on the layered magic of its surging chorus. Live, though, Phillips was forced to repeatedly downshift from the lead vocal line to provide what ended up being an unconvincing counterpoint. And while her presentation actually helped a few of the compositions–“When I Fall” and “Holding On to the Earth” discovered new sinew in the Land Without Backing Vocals–most of them just sounded skeletal. The overall effect was that of an underdressed performance, and while there’s nothing wrong with showing off a great body with Lycra and rib knit, there’s something to be said for a flowing garment here and there, maybe even a hat.

Phillips’s vocal nakedness created a second, more serious problem–it exposed the seams in her songwriting. Despite her emigration from Christian pop, Phillips is still a moralist at heart, and her lyrics probe the hypocrisies of contemporary life with material that verges on the timeworn. No fewer than half of the songs on Martinis and Bikinis rely on fire imagery, and just as many slip into stilted condemnations of runaway materialism or moral turpitude. On record, these morality playlets are clarified by the arrangements; the trite sentiments of “Same Rain” (“Is it the same rain that falls on a poor man’s room / Is it the same rain that falls on a rich man’s tomb / Is it the same rain that falls on me”) are drowned out by a delicious swirl of Eastern instrumentation and cannily arranged vocals. In concert, though, the lyrics hit straight and often fell flat; nowhere was this more evident than in the solo acoustic set that ended the show, just Phillips passionately strumming perfectly constructed songs whose lyrics rarely transcended cliche. When you’ve been treated to a show as generally enjoyable as this one, it hardly seems fair to find the one soft spot and poke away relentlessly. But pop depends on presentation, and foolish choices can reduce great songs. And as Phillips no doubt realizes, you don’t cover “Gimme Some Truth” if you’re looking for a puff piece.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Philin Phlash.