Commenting that the heat wave baking L.A. created the perfect climate for her perf — “This is an evening of torch songs” — singer-songwriter Sam Phillips added that torch could be short for torture as well as the more traditional meaning. The flame of her torch, however, gives off a cool, analytical light. Thin and angular, with sharp features, lank blonde hair and a wary gaze that darts around the room as though she’s looking for the closest exit, Phillips exhibits a sense of unease that on Largo’s small stage made her performance even more intimate. It’s the way someone telling uncomfortable truths would act.
The a cappella “Foolin’ Myself” that opened the set turns the Billie Holiday classic into a self-lacerating lament; like the title of her new album, “A Boot and a Shoe” (Nonesuch), Phillips’ own songs are about mismatched pairs (“I have failed at love,” she bluntly told the intensely attentive aud). “I was broken when you met me,” she sang in “How to Quit,” and ended the evening by lamenting that “Help is coming — one day late.” And “Say What You Mean” (from 2001’s “Fan Dance”) is one of the most quietly devastating kiss-off songs ever written.
As on her last two albums, Phillips whittles the songs down to their barest elements. Jay Bellerose’s careful, skeletal work on percussion barely indicates the beat while Patrick Warren’s keyboards and Phillips are restrained; only the Section’s graceful strings add flesh to the music. The spare arrangements put the craft of her writing on display — the melodic hairpin turns of “I Dreamed I Stopped Dreaming”; the way the chorus of “Taking Pictures” expands and contracts. Like Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields (she composes a love letter to him as an introduction to her nodding, extruded version of Lennon/McCartney’s “I Wanna Be Your Man”), she is a masterful miniaturist.
Her torch songs may be as compressed as a pilot light, but her exacting talent still burns bright.