K Phillips Makes Lush, Sentimental Rounds on ‘Dirty Wonder’
by Brody Coronelli
Country music is a hard genre to navigate. Turn one way and you might stumble on an artist sticking to the genre’s soulful, honest roots, but turn another way and you may come across one that’s let radio pop sensibilities drown out country’s eclectic, down-to-earth origins. K Phillips definitely isn’t the latter. In fact, he sits somewhere in between, churning out music that’s personal, expressive, and evokes the nostalgia of the genre, while also giving it enough of a concise, modern edge that shows he’s more interested in moving forwards than backwards.
Born and raised in West Texas, Phillips has been playing and writing since he was six years old. He released his debut LP American Girls in 2012, striking a charming balance between low-down, southern grit and literate, sentimentally immediate songwriting. The same can be said about his follow-up Dirty Wonder, only this time around, he spends more time looking outward than inward. This is a breakup album at its core, mostly chronicling a split he witnessed firsthand, with the occasional autobiographical and fictional touch. However, these songs don’t waste any time leaning on the common tropes and clichés of other breakup songs. Instead, Phillips expresses the prevailing feelings, whims, and ruminations of lost love with unrivaled, eclectic wit that feels as fresh as it does charismatic. This unique narrative teams up with an array of flowering pedal steel, sensuous girl-group background vocals, loose but tonally precise guitar playing, and beaming blues piano in a combination that results in one of the best records modern country music has to offer.
On the lead single “Hadrian”, which features a guest vocal from The Counting Crows’ frontman Adam Duritz, Phillips documents the lasting energy of a relationship by making clever allusions to historical events and famous lovers throughout time, drawing comparisons to the passions and struggles they dealt with. The song pulls you in with a slick, seductive pedal steel draw and an excellent hook (“C’mon honey/Show me a spark/This is the easy part”) but makes you come back over and over again to dissect it’s engaging references to literature and history.
Dirty Wonder goes back and forth from moments of gritty, lowdown swagger to spouts of vivid, emotional clarity. The title track “Dirty Wonder” is the best example of the first temperament, characterized by Phillips’ sauntering, precise vocal delivery and a blissfully unhinged barrelhouse piano that oozes attitude and gritty, sexual energy. “Coalburner” sits on the other side of the spectrum, riding a slow wave of quiet, melancholic nostalgia “I used to live like a locomotive/traveling through them hills of gold/spitting steam & burning coal/but nothing moves me anymore”, he sings, leading up to a conclusion that echoes just as much emotional uncertainty.
Some of the record’s best moments sit somewhere in the middle of the romping ups and somber downs. “18 Year Old Girls” is a comical, sultry track with a slick groove that manages to sharply express the confusion and lack of direction that often follows a breakup while maintaining a lighthearted spirit. Another shining example of this middle ground is the poignant “Rom Com”. This narrative-driven song details the beginning, middle, and end of a long-term relationship with blossoming instrumentation and a keen, cinematic eye that leaves the narrative feeling movielike. The loose, anthemic “Round The World” also sticks out. The track is as good natured as it gets when it comes to looking back on a past relationship, viewing it with positive nostalgia rather than bitter repent. “Clarinets and broken bows/Bayonets and money owed/and I traveled ‘round the world/with a dark haired girl”, Phillips sings over a bright parade of acoustic guitars, piano, and side-stepping slide riffs.
K Phillips is—at his core—a songwriter, and an excellent one at that. His song-craft and unique, chiseled vocal delivery combined with some of the best playing in modern country music make Dirty Wonder an emotionally-forward, rollicking country record that has just as much gritty, lowdown attitude as it does wise, nostalgic rumination. These are diverse, masterfully crafted songs written with each other in mind, and they waste no time in documenting all the ups, downs, and recollections that follow a broken relationship with a slick, chiseled charm. K Phillips is one of country music’s greatest hidden gems, and if Dirty Wonder is any indication, he’s only moving forward.
Listen to: “Hadrian”, “Rom Com”, “18 Year Old Girls”