This is a story of redemption. A story of good things coming—at long last—to a deserving someone who has worked hard for a very long time and has never given up in her quest to create beauty through art. For most of her career to date, singer-songwriter-guitarist Britta Phillips has either remained in the shadows or shared the spotlight with others. From her vocal work as the singing voice of Jem on the mid-80s animated series of the same name to her early stints with the indie rock bands The Belltower and Ultrababyfat to her notable contributions as a member of the acclaimed band Luna, Phillips has adeptly played a supporting role for most of her career.
More recently, Phillips has assumed a more prominent role as one half of Dean & Britta, the duo she formed in the early 2000s with her husband and former Galaxie 500 and Luna founder/frontman Dean Wareham. The pair released their stellar debut LP L'Avventura in 2003, followed by the excellent Back Numbers in 2007 and 13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol's Screen Tests in 2010. They’ve also scored Noah Baumbach’s acclaimed films The Squid and the Whale (2005) and Mistress America (2015).
Phillips began writing and recording her debut solo album in 2012 with the revered Bay Area DJ Scott Hardkiss, who invited Phillips to contribute vocals for his own debut effort Technicolor Dreamer (2009). A year into the collaboration, however, Hardkiss unexpectedly passed away at the young age of 43, a tragic event that was followed months later by the death of Phillips’ father, the classical and jazz musician Peter Phillips. Understandably, Phillips suspended work on the album in the aftermath of these losses.
Fortunately, the break from the studio proved an ephemeral one, as Phillips invited Eric Broucek, DFA Records’ former house producer/mixer, to reignite the project. The output of their partnership is the 10-track Luck or Magic, comprised of five covers and five original compositions. Much of the song suite sounds as if it very well could have been created decades ago, but Phillips and Broucek also incorporate plenty of sonic nuances and electronic flourishes that balance the album’s throwback feel with more contemporary foundations.
“I do have a lot of references coming out of the '60s, '70s, and '80s, but I don't consciously think, ‘I'm going to put this here and this there,’” Phillips recently admitted to Interview magazine. “It comes out of my unconscious, and I don't want it to be just retro. I did, however, want to combine sounds of past decades with each other and with more modern sounds on these recordings, but the way it happens is more like conjuring—very right brain and instinctive.”
Most of the multi-layered, elegantly crafted songs exude a reassuring luster and warmth, evoking the lush dream-pop pedigree of her previous groups and conforming to the classic, sunshine-soaked California rock/folk sound. The latter should come as no great surprise, as Phillips and Wareham—longtime New Yorkers—relocated to Los Angeles in the summer of 2013. Much of Luck of Magic’s charm can also be attributed to Phillips’ emotive, sweetly lilting voice, which most immediately calls to mind a hybrid of LA-based sirens Hope Sandoval, Jenny Lewis, Lana Del Rey, and at times, Stevie Nicks.
Each of Phillips’ five interpolations of others’ work is, as expected, quite lovely. And thankfully, Phillips and Broucek’s electro-tinged versions are vocally and sonically varied enough to avoid the carbon copy syndrome that renders many covers all but superfluous. Particular standouts among these include the duo’s shimmering reinterpretations of Evie Sands’ subdued “One Fine Summer Morning,” The Cars’ hit single “Drive,” and Dennis Wilson’s endearing ballad “Fallin’ in Love.” Though Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” has been covered by many—most notably Dixie Chicks and Smashing Pumpkins—Phillips imbues the classic ode to aging and loving gracefully with fresh perspective and poignancy.
While the covers are excellent, the unequivocal highlights of Luck or Magic are the pair of Phillips’ original songs that open the album. With a title that encapsulates the album’s overall feel, the hypnotic, cinematic swell of “Daydream” perfectly complements Phillips’ hushed croon and sounds divine. Arguably the album’s finest moment, the slinky, soulful groove of “Do It Last” finds Phillips proclaiming her affection for her paramour, while relinquishing any historical baggage that remains from their past relationships. When she confidently declares, “No, I don’t care who got to you first / I am the future and she’s the past,” you know that she speaks the truth.
Luck or Magic makes a damn fine first impression, and it’s the kind of album destined to reveal new treasures and reveries galore upon repeated listens. Contrary to the album’s title, the excellence of Phillips’ debut derives neither from luck nor magic, but rather from her proven penchant for crafting songs that are nothing short of sublime.
Notable Tracks: “Daydream” | “Do It Last” | “Fallin’ in Love” | “One Fine Summer Morning”