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John Phillips - Jack of Diamonds

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Artist: John Phillips

Album: Jack of Diamonds

Label: Varese Vintage

Review date: Oct. 3, 2007

The second release in a continuing series, Papa John Phillips Presents, Jack of Diamonds follows the reissue of John, The Wolfking of L.A.. That album, originally released in 1970, was the first solo album from Phillips, best known as the leader of The Mamas & The Papas. Following that album, Phillips dabbled with a number of projects, including tracks for a planned second album. That never appeared, but Jack of Diamonds collects songs from those recording sessions together with tracks from some of the other projects that kept Phillips busy between 1970 and 1973, including films and an off-Broadway musical in New York. A pair of Mamas & Papas songs, somewhat oddly, fill out the album. Recorded as part of the group's final contractual obligations but never used, they're perfectly pleasant but still filler.

While The Mamas & The Papas remains his primary legacy, Phillips wrote a number of songs that are best known for their performances by other artists, including the song from which this album takes it title. "Me and My Uncle (Jack of Diamonds)" is a story in song form, originally recorded by Judy Collins and later oft-played by the Grateful Dead. Two very different versions of the song appear here. The first smoothly trades off devil-may-care vocals and slide guitar, but cannily grows progressively more intense until Phillips' call of "Why are you so cold?" sounds positively accusatory. The alternate version emphasizes the crunchy guitar, while the vocals are somewhat more traditional in nature and less appealing for it.

The album starts with the one-two punch of "Devil's on the Loose" and "Mister Blue," some of the best songs here. The former's a groovy, jazz-inflected tune, slick and appealing. It may even be too slick for some, but the SoCal feel works. "Mister Blue" is effortlessly catchy, a dreamy song with some of Phillips' smoothest vocals. "Marooned (Double Parked)" has a similar feel, breathy vocals over acoustic guitar and hand percussion, though the vocal melody is nearly identical to the opening of "Mister Blue."

If the album has a problem it's actually the weight of holding 18 songs in a variety of styles. They're united by Phillips' voice, of course, and his songwriting approach, but the results are nonetheless scattered. We get the slickly jazzy tunes, the simple dreamy songs, the vaudevillian ("First And Last Thing You Do (Holland Tunnel)"), the heavily orchestrated pop, and more. Lightweight tunes like the boppy "Revolution On Vacation" and "Campy California (Aerospace)" don't add much to the album, but likewise don't do much harm. The over-orchestrated "Yesterday I Left the Earth" is a bit more problematic, as the excessive layers of instrumentation pretty much conceal whatever kernel of song was originally there. And "Stepping To The Stars/Penthouse Of Your Mind" is an odd bird, moving from a simple guitar and vocal piece into a trad-blues pastiche that sort of works but tips the balance a bit too far into the silly.

But songs like "Mister Blue" and "Too Bad" make one wonder why Phillips wasn't as well-known as Elton John – they're the equals of John's best. If this is a hit-and-miss collection, it still contains some illuminating pieces. I'll be looking forward to future volumes of this series to shed light on more of his work.

By Mason Jones

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