Between the early Christian music career under her birth name (Leslie Ann Phillips) and the later mainstream rebranding after meeting now-ex-hubby T-Bone Burnett, Sam Phillips has recorded 20 albums, five EPs, and scored 171 television episodes in the past 30 years. So it’s no surprise that on Push Any Button, she knows damn well what she’s doing.
Here, that means a late-60s, early-70s pop homage. Maybe we don’t need another retro fetish album – so many indie rock figureheads not going banjo these days are instead time travelling en masse to the summer of ’69 - but at least it’s one of the best ones released in the past decade or so.
Opener “Pretty Time Bomb” takes a boom-chuck beat but fuses it with Mike Doughty-style lyrics (from his time in Soul Coughing), which is one of the few choices on this album that caught a little flak from supporters: [LISTEN]
Later tracks may not veer into abstract, stream of consciousness territory like that one, but she definitely goes for a more modern introspection in lyrical messages. For instance, this positive theme of introverted independence completely contradicts “When I’m Alone‘”s 50s bubblegum vibe: [LISTEN]
When interviewed about it, Phillips said she was extolling the virtues of finding and loving oneself, and how being alone is always better than being in a distant, lonely relationship – a far cry from every song you’ve heard before with that melodic feel from the ’50s about finding your poodle skirt-donning, pony-tailed sweetie to take to the sock hop.
Still, that takes us back to the original issue: if you’re in the mood for some Oldies, don’t we already have a few decades’ worth of records to listen to?
Many tracks here immediately remind the listener of specific oldies – not just an overall 50s-70s vibe. The vocal lines of “Things I Shouldn’t Have Told You” [LISTEN] start “Last Train to Clarksville” [LISTEN] on the record-player in your head, while “When I’m Alone” starts too many different doo wop hits at the same time to even put your finger on one. Elsewhere it’s as if Phillips compressed entire Oldies comps into two minutes of straight hooks – all of which you’ve heard frequently since you were a child. There are some exceptions, such as the earthy minute-and-a-half waltz “Going” [LISTEN] and the ballad “See You in Dreams” [LISTEN]. But they are the minority.
Phillips has said that this album represents universal, timeless, and musical emotions. She looked to the past for inspiration because “technology is a faze (sic).” She sometimes injects unique chord progressions into the mix which helps, but those timeless emotions are still better conveyed at this point outside the realm of early-Beatles sound-alikes.