There's a difference between a "greatest hits" package and a "best of"
collection. The former, logically enough, would represent a musician's most
popular work; the latter, her finest (at least in theory). Sam Phillips
hasn't sold many records and she's almost never played on the radio, so
Zero Zero Zero, a compilation of songs from the last decade plus some
new cuts and alternate versions, must be a "best of," right?
Oh, if only that were true. Sure, Phillips tries to skirt the issue by
calling the album a collection of "personal favorites." But that distinction
doesn't erase the fact that, even more than most compilations, Zero Zero
Zero lacks the sustained power of the artist's strongest albums -- her
1988 debut, The Indescribable Wow, and her 1994 album, Martinis &
Bikinis. It's representative of Phillips' offbeat approach; it's just
not representative of the finest examples of that approach.
Maybe Phillips was trying to downplay her pop sensibility by leaving off
melodic gems like "Baby, I Can't Please You" and "I Don't Want to Fall in
Love." She even re-recorded her wonderful "Holding on to the Earth" (RealAudio excerpt of new version), sacrificing the original's sitar-like guitars and propulsive rhythms for a monotonous, downbeat reading that goes nowhere.
Ah, but isn't that engaging in the worst kind of criticism -- criticizing a
work for what it's not, for what you'd like it to be, rather than what it
is? Maybe. But what's here isn't that compelling, though it does highlight
Phillips' quirky, almost cold, take on human nature. A new song,
"Disappearing Act" (RealAudio excerpt), opens the album with pulsing acoustic guitars and backward guitar loops, which lead nicely into the harmonies and psychedelia of "I Need Love." The string-heavy version of "Where the Colors Don't Go" (RealAudio excerpt) evokes Elvis Costello on the verses and the Bangles on the chorus. And "Black Sky," from Martinis & Bikinis, showcases Phillips' cool and creepy side.
But most of the remixes and alternate takes are either pointless or pale in
contrast to the originals. "Holding on to the Earth" might gain some quiet
tension, but at the expense of the life-or-death reeling of the lush
original. In fact, holding back seems to be Phillips' modus operandi for the
remixes here; both "Fighting with Fire" and "Flame" are toned down by losing
either percussion or instrumentation, but reveal no new emotional nuances in
the vocal performances. Neither completists nor neophytes (after all, who else buys "best of" albums?) will find much here to interest them.