[13 August 2013]
Sam Phillips spent a little more than a year creating approximately three albums worth of material. The leap she took to pull off such a brazen and risky endeavor paid off big time—if you were a subscriber to Phillips’ Long Play music subscription service then you were treated to a brilliant inside glimpse of one of the best songwriters of our time creating music and art right before your very ears and eyes. Everything felt like it was in real time: you could almost see Phillips’ head reeling with creative juices as she navigated through old and new tunes to give her fans an experience of a lifetime. The downside to such an experiment, if there is one, is that it was slightly overwhelming to the listener at times. Fortunately, Phillips managed to keep the EPs that resulted from Long Play differentiated enough that you never felt like you were listening to the same songs over and over.
Now, almost two years later, Phillips has returned with a decidedly and pointedly briefer musical creation. Push Any Button exists almost as the complete antithesis of her Long Play releases, reminiscent of her’s Nonesuch days (particularly The Fan Dance and A Boot and A Shoe) with hints of her Virgin heyday (Martinis and Bikinis and Omnipop). In the July 2011 PopMatters interview with Phillips, she mentioned that this album (then titled Pretty Time Bomb) is a happier, more pop-influenced record. Well, it’s safe to say that her interpretation of “pop” is most likely misaligned with modern mainstream definitions of the genre. That’s not to say that Push Any Button isn’t pop, but rather ‘50s and ‘60s pop. So, those expecting Phillips to burst out in a chorus of “Last Friday Night” or “Tik Tok” will be sorely disappointed, or pleasantly surprised, whichever the case may be.
Push Any Button begins with the percussion-heavy, doo-wop tune “Pretty Time Bomb”. On it she sings: “Start counting everybody, it’s going to blow / Pretty time bomb, you’re a mirror of your time.” Pop is not often this smart. Singing about zeitgeists and social collapse, this upswing is definitely lesson-heavy, and we are the bearers of those who benefit from learning it. “Pretty Time Bomb” sets a wonderful pace for an easily digestible musical experience that is littered with heavy sentiments and intelligent song structures, nicely balanced by some simpler tunes, such as tracks like “When I’m Alone” and “No Time Like Now”. “All Over Me” continues where “Pretty Time Bomb” leaves off, mixing in some nice horn accompaniments and a 2/4 time signature to compliment such lyrics as “All over me / All over me / Soaked in the light I’ve waited all my life to see.”
Push Any Button clocks in at just under 30 minutes in total, boasting a mere 10 tracks with nary a song hitting the three-minute mark (“See You in Dreams” and “No Time Like Now” being the two exceptions). What’s most interesting about Push Any Button is how remarkably diverse the entire album feels. Juxtaposing the swinging doo-wop of “Pretty Time Bomb” with the astoundingly (too) short “Going”, which is nicely accented with a beautiful string arrangement and astute lines like “It feels like I’ve been where I’m going”, blends seamlessly and then flips it on its head with the heavy-ish “Things I Shouldn’t Have Told You”. The only (minor) fault with the album is that literally, if you blink, you miss it. Before you even realize, you’re on the last track, the aptly named “Can’t See Straight”. The last chime chimes then… silence. The album is done.
Although Phillips did a fair job in describing the record as a happy pop version of herself, those aching for her Martinis and Bikinis days will be slightly disappointed, even though they shouldn’t. Phillips has proven through her extensive and diverse career that she can manage a musical progression like nobody’s business. Few artists have managed to change and mature and continue to challenge themselves by placing greater emphasis on the music and how it comes together over the need to churn something out to continue making money. You can tell that she places a great deal of time on the details; lines don’t just spill over without consideration for relevance or meaning, and songs aren’t just produced with the same boring three-piece band. Phillips surrounds herself with adaptable and interesting musicians all working together to create more of a band experience than a singer/songwriter one, even though the focus is always left squarely on Sam Phillips herself. Push Any Button, although fleeting in length, is a testament to an artist who is so capable of keeping you guessing every step along the fascinating way.