This is the first day of 2014, and what better way to chime in the New Year than with a new musical discovery? Spring Lake, NJ resident and schoolteacher Karen Phillips fits that bill in a very pleasant way.
Coming Home is a 10-song endeavor of rather large proportions. Phillips’ core group consists of over 16 distinct musicians ranging from backing vocalists and horns to violas, banjos and even cajons. This is texture extraordinaire and Phillips’ producer Steve Jankowski has left no stone unturned in his search for a luxurious, dynamic backdrop to showcase Phillips’ storytelling prose and vocal capabilities.
Coming Home walks right through the front door with “Cold In Nebraska.” Guitarist Gordon “Bunker” Strout rolls in on James Burton-styled picking, kicking into a gallop and pulling off acoustic, countrified chord progressions throughout the verses and bridges.
It takes about a minute and 15 seconds for the song to find its legs, but when it does, it goes from a trot to a gallop, and it’s a smooth pace to the finish. Phillips is methodical and doesn’t rush to reach her dynamic destiny. The harmony skill of Rob Paparozzi, Deb Lyons and Lisa Sherman is completely seamless, adding ear candy to the listener’s overall experience. Strout sums it up, igniting the bridge of this pseudo-countrified jazzer with several measures of Skunk Baxter-styled brilliance and lynchpin focus.
“The Ballad Of John Chapman” is up next and it rides in on the regal imagery of Kentucky bluegrass. Violas, courtesy of Henry Houh, light emotional fire for this gritty, down-home backwoods ballad. The standout dobro work of Dave Plewa plays its call and response, sending out glimmering patterns of wood and steel as Phillips tells the tale of the traveling troubadour in search of love, life and redemption. Phillips stretches out effortlessly, using her talented tremolo in her quest to paint the most comprehensive of musical ideas, and it works quite well in this context.
The band’s popular influences really shine on “Cheyenne.” The robust soprano sax work of shore area kingpin Tommy Labella harkens me back to 1974 and the Carole King record, Wrap Around Joy, and everything skillfully done by Tom Scott and Jimmy Horn. “Cheyenne” is plausibly one of Phillips’ most memorable tunes and a top choice for commercial airplay. The arrangements are complex, but addictively alluring. Jeff Levine mans the B3 as the song swings through key changes, dynamic breathing space and instrumental free flights of the most striking variety, and I’m moved by the musicians that made this song a reality.
The down and dirty blues rock of “Take Me Down” is a further standout on Coming Home. I love the harmonica call and response of Grammy nominee Rob Paparozzi. Rob is the vocalist for Blood, Sweat & Tears and has played with Dolly Parton, George Jones and many others. His contributions are vast (Springsteen, Whitney Houston, Cyndi Lauper), and his Blues Brothers attitude blazes bright on the tune. Drums and bass work of Bob Giunco and John Perry put this song on the constant alert of rock and roll readiness as the Hammond performance of Chris Giunco whirls around the song’s environment. Paparozzi and Strout cut loose on this free-for-all, throwing out massive riffs as they switch off, dodging with dance-like dexterity as Phillips wails her sassy, sexy, Bonnie Raitt-vibed plea for a spiritual journey down to the riverside setting of a beautiful yesterday.
“Say Goodbye” is rim shot-metered gold that shows Phillips as a savvy songwriter who understands the complex art of song development. “Say Goodbye” rings in more yesteryear gold with its Laura Nyro meets The Doobie Brothers feel. The electric violin work of Yuri Turchyn is in control, leading the way for the band to break into the verse before dropping into the middle-eight and cutting a pathway for Strout to rip some distinguished solo work straight up the middle. Once again, the harmony work of Lyons, Paparozzi and Sherman lock tight and tasty in support of Phillips’ honey-dripping tone.
“Believe” dances off the CD player like a music box ballerina. With the able support of Strout’s acoustic picking prowess, Phillips dives deep into an emotive and soulful vocal performance that makes me shake my head in wonder at the initiation of this musician who has obviously been building her own name outside of the Asbury “Hollywood” scene. Make no mistake, this is adult-oriented music, but there’s crossover appeal for miles, and it’s attractive to anyone looking to experience performance class in a suffocating world full of fedora-wearing, Silvertone-strumming hipster clones. Once again, the dobro work of Dave Plewa is back in its understated and highly effective melodic delivery. “Believe” is a song that I have much faith in when it comes to the race for major label gold.
“Keep On Shining” contains several influential meteorites that flash across my recollective skies. The James Gang, Judee Sill, Fairport Convention and James Taylor all register as I listen to this celebratory romp performed by some of the best in the business. Looking at this song (and the record for that matter), it really demonstrates how much blood, sweat and tears (sorry Rob, I had to) went into making this record a reality. Great compositional skill matched by remarkably gifted players, arrangement and production have all combined and ignited in a great mushroom cloud of victory, and “Keep On Shining” celebrates this like no other song on the disc.
The heavy bass implementation of John Perry puts even-paced grace into play on “Found Someone.” Phillips’ voice takes to this tune like icing on the cake as she modulates, warbles, and powers down into a bluesy, sultry style that I could listen to for days. Trumpet work of producer Steve Jankowski is immeasurably phenomenal, and he is yet another player that can carry a listener back into moments of the big bands reign. Berkley alumni Chris Giunco’s piano work sparkles deep in the back alongside the B3 magic of Jeff Levine. Levine is yet another guy who brings genuine style to Coming Home. He has logged playing and touring time with the likes of Clarence Clemons, The Chambers Brothers, Hall & Oates, Bo Didley, Joe Cocker and so many more, and that experience shines on the performances.
Think of The Mandrell Sisters, Stevie Nicks and Wynonna Judd, and you’d be in the right ballpark of “Silver Light.” The song also emphasizes more great dobro work from Plewa as he tussles with the acoustic magic of Strout and the train track-tight rhythms of Bob Giunco. This is Smoky Mountain, percolating hoedown honesty at its best.
“Coming Home” finishes off the platter in expected style and form. Organs levitate, honing trance-like analog warmth all around Phillips as the chorus blows up with the entire ensemble. Trumpets, violas, sax, guitars, pianos, organs and more throw up walls of sound as Phillips ushers in guest vocalist Rob Paparozzi, who grinds and growls with the similar powerhouse soul of Joe Cocker or Southside Johnny Lyon. When you blend Phillips and Paparozzi, it’s American bred balance at its ultimate best. Backing vocals are massive to the message as the band hits their ultimate crescendo, giving everything they can before heading back to the barn. This is what a big band should sound like, bar none.
Coming Home is my 2014 kickoff surprise, and I can only guess where Karen Phillips might be going next. With a welcoming array of styles that keep you guessing in a good way, Phillips raises the bar far above the typical shore band offerings accessible today, and she is sure to continue surprising musical appreciation enthusiasts for years to come.
You’ll get the opportunity to see Karen live as she participates in this year’s Light Of Day celebration at The Saint in Asbury Park on Thursday, Jan. 16. The event is called “First Note” and Karen will be taking the stage at 8 p.m.
For more information on Karen Phillips, her stellar ensemble and her exceptional new record, Coming Home, head over to karenphillips.info.