Leslie Ann Phillips, better known as Sam Phillips, got on my radar screen in 1994 when a critic on NPR proclaimed her Martinis and Bikinis was one of the 10 best albums of the year. He played “Baby, I Can’t Please You” to demonstrate his point. It wasn’t long before Martinis and Bikinis was in my collection. Right away, I decided her take on John Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth” was another example (along with Danielle Dax’s 1990 cover of “Tomorrow Never Knows”) of how Beatles-related material could be refreshed and reinvigorated by a generation who were barely in kindergarten when the British Invasion exploded.
Just under 20 years later, there’s a strong overlay of the ’60s again in Phillips’ new Push Any Button, and that’s by design. After all, the phrase Push Any Button comes from the 20th century as, in our electronic age, we’re pressing few buttons now. Of course, even back on her Virgin Records albums produced with her then-husband, T-Bone Burnett, the homages to old-fashioned girl groups, rockabilly, and neo-psychedelia couldn’t be missed. Now, describing Push Any Button, Phillips said it’s “a nostalgic sort of dream of being a pop star in the ’60s and early ’70s. It’s a sweet kind of album and I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know what compelled me to make it.”
However, the spirit moved her; you can hear Phillips’ wide brush dipping in those old palates in the album’s opener, “Pretty Time Bomb,” a song which was once to also be the disc’s title track. As with Phillips’ idiosyncratic Virgin recordings, her use of Beatles-esque touches, again leaning more on Lennon than Sir Paul, help shade “See You in Dreams,” “You Know I Won’t,” and “Speaking of Pictures.” “You Know I Won’t” isn’t only evocative of Lennon, there’s a healthy bit of the rough-voiced Melanie Safka too. But listen to those elliptical lyrics and the spare production. Phillips may be channeling old forms, but in very personal, individual ways.
While many have noted Phillips is clearly in the poetic tradition of Joni Mitchell, you can also hear echoes of other singer sisters from the past. “Can’t See Straight” reminded me a tad of early Rickie Lee Jones – remember the brief flash of time when she mattered?
The 29-minute Push Any Button is Grammy-nominated Phillips’ 10th studio album, this time featuring musicians Jay Bellerose (drums), Jennifer Condos (bass), Benmont Tench (piano), Eric Gorfain (guitar/violin), The Section Quartet (strings) and Dave Palmer (piano). Produced by Phillips with mixing and production help from Gorfain, the set was recorded, publicity has it, in a 1920s “Charlie Chaplin bungalow near downtown Los Angeles.” Ironically, the very release of 10 new songs on a physical disc is a bit of a throwback for Phillips as well, as she’s spent most of the past decade issuing digital-only material. Even more ironically, she plans on re-producing all those digital releases for vinyl as she sees that format as having more of a future than some might think. In fact, Push Any Button will be available on vinyl, CD, or as a download, meaning your technology can be traditional old school or totally 21st century to find out if Phillips’ new songs can push your emotional and sonic buttons.
In short, Push Any Button should have a multi-generational appeal if you don’t rely on hot radio hits to stir up your interest. Other than “Pretty Time Bomb,” there are few obvious singles here, as Push Any Button works best as a whole, a trip down a very individualistic time warp. It might not be among the top 10 releases of this year, but it’s among Phillips’ personal high points.