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WRITING ON THE WALL (2003)
Writing on the Wall - Click to view!If trying circumstances are the soil from which the truest music springs, then Jill Phillips' recording career certainly would certainly qualify as fertile ground. The smart, radio-friendly textures of her self-titled Word Records debut landed her a spot on the October 1999 cover of CCM Magazine as one of Christian music's brightest new artists. But despite its Top 20 single ("Steel Bars") and generally positive reviews, the album's sales were disproportionately modest and Phillips exited the Word label shortly afterwards. The indie follow-up, 2001's God and Money, did similarly meager business despite netting a surprised Phillips Best Independent Artist honors in the 2002 CCM Readers' poll. After signing with the nationally-distributed Fervent Records label in March of this year, Phillips' father passed away after the recording of her third album.

Amazingly, in light of the personal and career upheaval which surrounded its production, the Writing on the Wall release shows Phillips bouncing back with her most consistent and focused effort to date. "Wrecking Ball" and "Leave It Up to You" are a commanding one-two opening salvo combining the shimmering pop sense of the debut record with the earthy immediacy of the indie effort. The likewise powerful "Sacred" is both meditative and grand. And the sparse, stripped-down instrumental approach to tracks like "Interlude" and "Wisdom" allows for some of the most intricate and sublime guitar work to grace any of Phillips' releases thus far.

Phillips' lyrical observations continue to be spot-on as well. "The Way of the Fire" ("I felt the undertow / Of all the things I asked for coming true") makes superb use of the water analogy to compare the believer's walk to a sometimes fierce and shifting stream. "Grace and Peace" is a similarly perceptive piece emphasizing the heightened need for unity within the church during uncertain times. And somber entries such as "Still Is My Soul" and "Even Still" ("You took our dreams / And future plans / Crushed them all / Like grains of sand") take on an added resonance in light of Phillips' recent loss.

Listening to the indie release, one can almost hear Phillips relishing the opportunity to conquer a grittier, more lyrically diverse form of music than that found on the debut. With Writing, one gets the sense that, having proven she could do so, Phillips now returns to the fold fully vindicated and ready to take the infectious, tune-driven pop of the first record to the proverbial next level. And, on that count, she most definitely succeeds. Alternately introspective, celebratory and cathartic, Writing on the Wall assumes the top slot in an already impressive catalog, proving once again that Phillips' imposing vocal and lyrical talent makes for some of the Christian community's most unique and intelligent music.
- Bert Gangl
October 2003
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