By Steve Wilson
In the vast sea of women singer-songwriters bent on Joni worship and literary pretense, Sam Phillips stands, and always has stood out. Her palette is typically the same mix of acoustic and electric instruments shared with the confessional crowd, but her songwriting has always favored brevity, and a heady mix of enigmatic lyrics and pop concision. The ten-song. twenty-nine minute snap of her new album Push Any Button presents a sparkling epitome of such pleasures. Taking her cues from Lennon-McCartney, Phillip’s oeuvre more resembles that of Marshall Crenshaw or Nick Lowe (or even Robyn Hitchcock) than the majority of her distaff peers.
Over the course of nearly three decades, Phillips has compiled a lovely, sometimes brilliant body of work. Starting as an artist in the Christian Music idiom, for which she released four albums, Phillips aimed for the popular market with her fifth album, The Indescribable Wow.
Wow was the first in a series of consistently charming records produced by T-Bone Burnett, who would become Phillips husband. As producer of records like the soundtrack for Oh Brother, Where Art Thou and Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s Raising Sand, Burnett has been party to some big selling, Grammy winning releases. Sadly, for all their fine work together, Burnett’s productions never bumped Phillips recognition above an under the radar status.
And while The Indescribable Wow still charms, Burnett’s productions after Phillip’s relative commercial peak with Martinis and Bikinis in 1994, became stale; Omnipop especially failed to deliver, at least to these ears. The Sam and T-Bone partnership ended with their marriage; A Boot and a Shoe, her 2004 release on Nonesuch, culminating that era. With the self-produced Don’t Do Anything in 2008, also on Nonesuch, Phillips’s years in the major label game drew to a close.
In the first decade of the new century I will confess to having tuned out a little. I’d get her new albums, listen, and nod with approval and file. Listener/reviewer fatigue is a byproduct of many things, most of them having nothing to do with the quality of an artist’s work. Hell, I’ve put out records only to have them ignored by someone previously supportive. Of course I thought they were overlooking a bloody masterpiece, but who’s to say why your ears perk up for one good record and not another? Not me.
But my ears certainly perked up for Push Any Button. In fact, it moves me as much as anything since Wow. These songs have the direct appeal of the Everly Brothers combined with the post-Fab ambition of artists like XTC. Songs like “When I’m Alone,” or “You Know I Won’t” would have fit like a glove into the Help tune stack – the former is pure, infectious Lennon-McCartney, the latter has George Harrison/Carl Perkins bounce and the raspy vocal nods to Wanda Jackson. Phillips’s kinship to Crenshaw is clear on “All Over Me,” – here, the song’s horn arrangement is a strange, but compelling cross between New Orleans/Allan Toussaint and more chaste English brass bands.
Solo Lennon, and a strange, but sweet strain of Marvin Gaye, are evident in “See You in Dreams,” the title and string arrangement both evoking “How Do You Sleep.” Phillips seems to like the backward guitar voicing of “I’m Only Sleeping,” too, as it features on both “You Know I Won’t” and “Speaking of Pictures,” the latter somehow combining the spirit of Tim Buckley’s Goodbye and Hello with the “we don’t want to say too much” candor of vintage Ray Davies.
Phillips and Eric Gorfain’s production is nuts and bolts, all studs showing, and not always conventional in terms of rhythm section parts and instrument placement in the mix. On “Things I Shouldn’t Have Told You” a small drum kit sound is secondary to distorted guitar lines and handclaps; the latter prominent and mocking a lyric like “you don’t even Know my secrets” – poignant, and enigmatic given the title of the song. There’s a hint of uncustomary menace here as well, a bit of “Sister Ray” seeping into Phillips’s attitude and arsenal.
Prepared piano sounds introduce the eloquent “Can’t See Straight,” an outsider’s non-anthem (“never could go with the crowd”) that resolves into Zen affirmation (“this life is so beautiful for no reason at all”); it’s a gentle hymn to self-acceptance that sounds like something Elvis Costello might write if he had more of an ear for economy.
Throughout Push, Sam Phillips sounds renewed. The album was recorded in two distinct bursts of creativity over a three-year period. The artist had and took time to live with the material, and it shows. Not that any of these performances sound labored, to the contrary they sound fresh and immediate. The benefit that leisure presented was in letting the artist choose the right songs with the right flow/sequence to make a sharp, impactful statement. Push’s songs ring with independence and hard won clarity, even in the midst of pain and chaos. Presented with arresting, atypical but poptastic arrangements – Sam Phillips’ Push Any Button is a jewel in the rough of current pop.
Push Any Button is released by Littlebox Recordings