Luck or Magic establishes Phillips as not only an excellent singer, but both a strong songwriter and strong interpreter of others’ songs.
Striking out on her own after 15 years collaborating with now-husband Dean Wareham in his band Luna, in the duet project Dean & Britta and on the scores of several Noah Baumbach films, singer/bassist Britta Phillips offers up a lot of either/or choices beyond just the title of her debut solo album. Of the album’s 10 tracks, half are originals and half are covers, and the instrumental backgrounds veer back and forth between organic instruments and icy electronics. Some of that dichotomous nature may be due to the album’s two-part gestation: Phillips spent the better part of a year collaborating on the initial demos with DJ Scott Hardkiss, set aside the songs for a year after Hardkiss’s unexpected death, then reentered the studio with LCD Soundsystem engineer Eric Broucek to finish the project.
That stylistic divergence may result in a bit of aural whiplash with each shift from track to track, but the set succeeds as a whole because each arrangement highlights what it’s supposed to be highlighting: Phillips’ voice. And what a voice it is, shifting from big and brassy to cool and collected to sexy and seductive as each song dictates. The album starts strong: opener “Daydream” starts with a haunting piano figure that is quickly enveloped by lush strings that provide the perfect bed for Phillips’ sex kitten purr to rest upon, while follow-up “Do It Last” brightens up the tempo with a strutting bass line and synth accents as Phillips coos “Still you better come when I call” in such a way that you can’t imagine that not obliging was ever an option.
After that pair, the songs tend to fall much more firmly in the “organic” or “electronic” categories, which makes the track sequencing a bit perplexing: as great as both songs are, it’s a bit of a rough transition from the sunny ’60s Carole King–ish soft rock of the Evie Sands cover “One Fine Summer Morning” to the ice-cold electronics of “Million Dollar Doll,” which plays like “Let’s Go to Bed”–era Cure as filtered through Tegan and Sara circa Sainthood. The latter at least eases nicely into “Drive,” a cover of the Cars classic that strips the song down to spare piano, blipping electronics, and Phillips’ echo-drenched vocals to form a beautiful reading of an already beautiful song.
As on Dean & Britta’s albums, Phillips does a great job of rearranging the covers to fit the overall mood of Luck or Magic and make them feel of a piece with the originals. That, of course, is no mean feat, but it’s obviously easier when covering a lesser known song (such as the previously mentioned Sands cover, the Dennis Wilson/Beach Boys obscurity “Fallin’ in Love,” and “Wrap Your Arms Around Me” by ABBA’s Agnetha Fältskog) than on a radio staple like “Drive.” While that song succeeds, less successful is “Landslide,” which attempts to turn the Fleetwood Mac original into a Chvrches song with limited success. The result is a semi-interesting take on a played-out song that has a strong vocal performance but is instrumentally kind of boring, although Wareham does pop in to supply a nice, loopy guitar solo.
Overall, Luck or Magic establishes Phillips as not only an excellent singer, but both a strong songwriter and strong interpreter of others’ songs—though, of course, those facts were already in evidence on her albums with Wareham. This album may not be quite as strong as the pair’s classics L’Avventura and Back Numbers, but it’s a fine first step in what will hopefully be many more solo ventures. | Jason Green