SAM PHILLIPS – Push Any Button

Album: Push Any Button

Artist: Sam Phillips

Label: Littlebox Recordings

Release Date: August 13, 2013

Sam Phillips


Casually strummed, but carefully put together, sparse and scrubby but ornamented with brass and strings, stylishly worded but fundamentally straightforward, the songs on Sam Phillips’ 10th full-length are balanced on the knife edge of art and confession. You get the sense, on one level, of feeling scrubbed bare with a washcloth, ruddy and honest and unadorned. But then you notice the skill with which these feelings are presented, the closeness of the fit between words and rhythms, the way that melodies twist into unexpected but ultimately inevitable patterns, the manner in which simple arrangements erupt into brash elaborations. Like Sam Phillips creaky, smoky voice, the songs may seem, on the surface, unfussed over, but they are actually precisely engineered to carry meaning, emotion and melodic heft.

Push Any Button is the first full-length since Phillips’ digital subscription experiment, the Long Play, whose best songs were collected on the superb Solid State in 2011. She recorded it in fits and starts at home, taking her time and recollecting 1950s and 1960s pop styles through her songs. The material ranges from sweeping dream ballads (“See You In Dreams”, “No Time Like Now”) to hiccup-y, country-flavored early rock (“When I’m Alone,” “You Know I’m Not”) to 1950s crooner pop (“When You Can’t See Straight”). She’s said, in interviews, that she was thinking, particularly about the Wrecking Crew – the session musicians behind everything from Nancy Sinatra to the Beach Boys –and the songs here reflect that kind of effortless, unpremeditated skill.

I like the way these songs are both transparent and luxuriant, the way that an orchestra’s worth of pizzicato strings percolates up through “When I’m Alone” without upsetting the song’s basic plainspoken-ness. The string arrangements in, for instance, “See You in Dreams” are pillow-y soft and romantic without taking the edge off Phillips’ side-slanting, world-weary rasp.   “All Over Me” seems like the barest, least embellished kind of guitar-scrabble, until the flares of brass turn it Motown-ish-ly celebratory.  Phillips’ very considerable skill is in getting to the core of an idea, stripping it down to essentials and then shading it subtly with cross-currents of meaning and musical counterpoint.

DOWNLOAD: “When I’m Alone”, “See You in Dreams”   

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