12:02 PM EDT, August 12, 2013
3.5 stars (out of 4)
When she first started making albums in the ‘80s, Sam Phillips showed a knack for shaping first-rate songs steeped in melody with psychedelic and chamber-rock textures. On “Push Any Button” (Littlebox), she’s once again making concise pop songs with a folk foundation, centered on acoustic guitar and voice but colored with strings, horns, keyboards and the occasional backward guitar effect. The 10 tracks breeze past in 29 minutes, and the singer-songwriter doesn’t waste any of them.
A dark undertow unsettles the album even at its brightest and most upbeat. Nothing is ever as easy or obvious as it seems for the adult characters portrayed in the lyrics, and those ambiguities give the songs a bittersweet resonance. “When I’m Alone” locks into a fast-strumming groove as if trying to push through a heartbreaking past, the narrator finally realizing she can move on after a break-up. Horns swing as “All Over Me” offers a world-weary celebration, of sorts: “The dark is gone” but “I’m not holding on to anything.” The brisk, countryish bouyancy of “You Know I Won’t” offsets a tale of turmoil and resilience.
Phillips never resorts to histrionics as a vocalist, and her songs are stripped of excess. She delivers a line such as “Never could go with the crowd” with dry understatement. It’s as close to a career summation as we’ll get from this brilliant if underappreciated artist. All the more reason to savor “Can’t See Straight,” with its keyboard ornamentation and offbeat glow. “This world is so beautiful,” she sings, “for no reason at all.”
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