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Christian Pop Gets Metaphysical — and Tuneful

In an earlier incarnation, Sam Phillips made vaguely metaphysical, disarmingly tuneful Christian pop.
In an earlier incarnation, Sam Phillips made vaguely metaphysical, disarmingly tuneful Christian pop.

Before Sam Phillips made noir-pop records like Fan Dance, she made impeccably attired, slightly high-strung art-pop (see Martinis and Bikinis) that happily walked in the shadow of The Beatles. And before that, she was Leslie Phillips, purveyor of compelling Christian pop.

The Turning, produced by her future (and now ex-) husband T-Bone Burnett, is the best of Phillips' several albums in that genre. Establishing a pattern that's been repeated through much of her career, it generated fawning reviews but had little impact commercially, and after its release, Phillips changed her name and turned her full attention toward secular record-making.

The Turning addresses transitions of all kinds. Phillips already has her head in pop: The serene cascades of multi-tracked vocals and the kicky, Cyndi Lauper-ish backbeats — see "Love Is Not Lost" (audio) — indicate that. So do the lyrics: On "The Turning" (audio), she worries about becoming jaded by unforeseen events, repeating the refrain "And when it turns on me, don't let it turn me" until it becomes a type of modern nondenominational mantra. The lyrics aren't Amy Grant-style "God is love" declarations; Phillips instead aims for the general territory of Peter Gabriel's "keep the faith" anthems, writing odes of actualization and uplift that illuminate those moments when a true believer's resolve is tested.

Not all of The Turning sparkles. Several lighthearted pop songs are marred by towering arena-rock drums and other touches that scream "Made in 1987." But in the album's quieter moments, like "Carry You" (audio), Phillips hits something timeless — music that encompasses brooding questions and deep reassurances, guided by the devotion of one who seeks without necessarily expecting to find.

Listen to last week's 'Shadow Classic.'

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Tom Moon has been writing about pop, rock, jazz, blues, hip-hop and the music of the world since 1983.