Omnipop – Sam Phillips (1996)

Nearly 25 years ago, Sam Phillips released Omnipop (It’s Only a Flesh Wound, Lambchop). Everyone was excited….after all, this was the follow up to the critically lauded Martinis and Bikinis. Phillips’ fourth studio album (or fifth, or eighth, depending on who you ask) promised to be great. Long story short, Omnipop flopped. The Chicago Times called the album a “misfire,” while the LA Times rated it two stars. Omnipop sold less than any of Phillip’s previous albums (at least those with the “Sam” nom de plume). Yet, despite all this bad press….I personally loved Omnipop (It’s Only a Flesh Wound Lambchop). Omnipop felt different and more creative. Sure, I liked The Turning and The Incredible Wow more, but I still felt like Omnipop was a pretty amazing piece of music.

A couple weeks back I was surprised to see that Omnipop had finally been added to Spotify. Thus I feel the album is due a fresh listen. A pair of fresh ears applied, I’m both afraid and excited what I will find. Will Omnipop live up to its lack luster reputation, or should we leave said reputation in the past?

Track 1: Entertainman

Entertainman draws us into a story of a women in need of social justice. Once more, Entertainman sounds suspiciously close to the story of Nicole Brown Simpson. Considering Omnipop was written during the same time as Simpson’s and Goldman’s murder (allegedly) by OJ Simpson, it’s most likely from that story. So…the material was timely and relatable to Phillip’s audience.

Entertainman fits in well with songs such as “Remorse,” and “Cruel Inventions,” “Walls of Silence,” and any other song by Phillips involving abuse and mistreatment of women. Once more, as Entertainman is a darker, slower song, we catch hints that Omnipop will be a different type of album. After all, the three (or four) other Sam Phillips albums all started with lighter, poppier songs. My guess is this introduction to the album might have even scared off a few supposed Phillips fans.

Grade: A

Sure, I would probably not use Entertainman to start an album, but the song is solid! Again, very timely and very relevant to Phillips’s catalog. Adding the fictionalized aspects of the song transforms it from being about one specific case, to something that can happen to anyone (or at least any woman). Entertainman transforms itself into a cautionary tale.

Track 2: Plastic is Forever

Plastic is Forever talks about the lack of uniqueness in a world where everything is mass produced. A catchy song, Plastic is Forever plays on the substance (or lack thereof) of mass produced pop, and uses its own genre as a metaphor.

Grade: B

Again, the derivative, yet catchy pop sounds of Plastic is Forever hammers the message of the song home. There’s really not much originality to the song, but then again…isn’t that kind of the point?

Track 3: Animals On Wheels

Think circus music. Now think circus music played in a minor key. That’s the background music for Animal On Wheels, and it’s just as creepy as it sounds. The lyrics, while hard to piece together, spell out apocalyptic themes (such blowing up the Earth and starting the world all over again).

Grade: B

Animals On Wheels is creepy. I like that!

Track 4: Zero Zero Zero!

Zero Zero Zero paints a picture of humility. With lines like “you never know when you might need a zero” and “everything that I’m not. is all that I’ve got,” we get the distinct impression that the song wants us to simplify our lives….emotions and all.

As far as the sounds of Zero Zero Zero! They’re catchy. With a repeating horn section and a rhumba beat in the background, Zero Zero Zero! would be a great song to dance to!

Grade: B+

Entertaining – yes, though the repeated horns do get a little tedious.

Track 5: Help Yourself

If Entertainman was dark, Help Yourself must be whatever is past dark. With lyrics such as “I laid down on a table / You Pulled up a chair / You’re gonna help yourself to me” and “like a pair of wrists that had never been slit,” we get the feeling we’re in the middle of a horror movie.

Help Yourself starts with a baseline reminiscent of a racing heartbeat, and progresses with the creepiest horn section I’ve ever heard. Seriously….said sounds almost ghastly! During the last third of the song, we hear a wah pedal (for a guitar) repeatedly used in a tempo reminiscent of the music played during psycho’s infamous shower scene.

Grade: A-

Help Yourself is classic 1990s Sam Phillips. Though creepy as anything else on the album, we get a lot of depth in lyrics and a lot of interesting sounds.

Track 6: Your Hands

The first true ballad on Omnipop, Your Hands gives us a message of hope despite dire circumstances. The image presented in the chorus is literally someone losing grip and falling from a cliff, only to feel a pair of hands grab their own before they fell to their death. A powerful image, and perhaps a call back to Phillips CCM days, as she uses religious imagery….both in a literal and figurative sense. Your Hands also serves as a sequel to the song “When I Fall” from Martinis and Bikinis.

The instrumentation is fantastic! Minimalistic in the verses, in the chorus, we hear guitar riffs that sound almost alien in nature.

Grade: A

Your Hands might just be the best song on the Omnipop. Your Hands might even be the best song Sam Phillips song of the 90s.

Track 7: Power World

More akin to the solid rock sound of Martinis and Bikinis, Power World really sounds misplaced on Omnipop. Gone is the experimental instrumentation, Phillips relies on more traditional rock and roll. With that said, Power World’s thesis “our ideas of perfect are so imperfect” fit right into the rest of the album. In fact, Power World almost echoes the sentiments of Plastic is Forever.

Grade: B

A solid rock song, but considering the length of the album – perhaps Power World might have been better as a B side to Plastic is Forever.

Track 8: (Skeleton)

A short instrumental track, (Skeleton) provides a nice little break from the thought provoking lyrics of Phillips other songs. Instead, (Skeleton) encourages us to just focus on the sounds. Oh – and there are plenty of sounds. Guitars and drums join a few blips and beeps from a synthesizer in new and exciting ways. (Skeleton lasts just long enough to make you want more….and then it ends.

Grade: C+

Not bad for an intermission….but I kind of wish it was longer.

Track 9: Where Are You Taking Me

A song about feeling helpless, Where Are You Taking Me gives us another dark song from Omnipop. While not as dark as the nearly cannibalistic imagery in Help Yourself, we still get a chilling feel as we listen. The speaker, a woman, feels trapped in a symbiotic relationship. She follows this relationship down a path….unsure what is to come at the end…but knowing its probably not something she wants to experience. And yet she still goes….she feels compelled to follow.

The minor chords used all throughout Where Are You Taking me adds to the dread of the song….and puts us into the shoes of the woman in the song. Meanwhile, the basic guitar chord progression in the bridge shows us that yes…the truth is close behind (as the lyrics state), but this truth is not something we should necessarily pursue.

Grade: B+

Creepy minor chords are creepy. Still….Sam Phillips does an amazing job at making the listener feel what it’s like to be in the woman’s shows.

Track 10: Compulsive Gambler

At 48 seconds, Compulsive Gambler is the shortest song on the album, but also says so much. A story about a woman whose spouse ignores her, as he spends his nights gambling. The last three lines says everything you need to know about the song “She would undress / Make him Nervous / He would rather lay a bet.”

Grade: B+

Humorous and sad at the same time, Compulsive Gambler just says so much in its six lines.

Track 11: Faster Pussycat to the Library

A casual listener might miss the sinister nature of the Faster Pussycat to the Library, as the song is rather upbeat. Faster Pussycat actually sounds like a song meant to motivate (much like Ceremony by New Order). Besides, The mellowed electric guitars lures us into a sense of false expectancy.

The title, a reference to the cult film Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! gives us a context of evil and bending of personal moral codes. One imagines a satan like creature singing this song to the audience – tempting them to take a step closer every time. All the while planting indexing the sinister thoughts in their heads…like some kind of sin librarian.

Grade: B+

This song should creep me out a lot more than it does. However, the lack of a “creep factor” is what makes this song so dangerous….and so enticing.

Track 12: Slapstick Heart

Written with the help of REM, Slapstick Heart was originally written for the film “Die Hard with a Vengeance” (in which Phillips plays a mute terrorist). Slapstick Heart sounds more produced than any other song on the album. Lyrically, the song’s imagery fits in well with the other songs. Lines such as “In dream I hold your knife over my heart” fit well with Where are You Taking Me, Help Yourself, and Entertainman. Meanwhile, lines like “The comedy in the tragic disbelief make us” shows us the introspection we find all throughout Omnipop.

Grade: C

While I could easily see this playing during the ending credits of a Die Hard movie. the song seems to just exist. Still….Slapstick Heart gives us a satisfying ending to a strong album. Of course…knowing that REM cowrote the song makes me imagine Michael Stipe singing the song.

Did Omnipop deserve to flop?

Listening to Omnipop with fresh ears makes me want to listen to it again and again. Perhaps the reason Omnipop flopped had more to do with people’s expectations and less to do with Sam Phillips’ songwriting. After all…everyone and their dog loved Martinis and Bikinis. Phillips played around with Beatle-esque sounds, we were in the midst of a new wave of Beatlemania. Omnipop, however, did not follow the Beatle-esque format. So with that in mind, those expecting a second version of Martinis and Bikinis would of course be super disappointed.

It’s too bad too! Omnipop is a strong and amazing album. I gave almost all the songs got at least a B, with a few Again, Your Hands might be one of Sam Phillips’ best songs. Another great strength of the the album, Sam Phillips’ ability to put us in the shoes of the songs’ protagonist – especially in songs like Where Are You Taking Me.

Long story short….if you shelved Omnipop (It’s Only a Flesh Wound Lambchop) in 1996, give it a fresh listen. The songs on this album deserve to be heard!

Sam Phillips Omnipop (It's Just a Flesh Wound, Lambchop).
(c) 1996 Virgin Records
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