IN JULY 2006 at a Sam Phillips show at Largo in Los Angeles, I met Bruce Greenberg – the world’s number one Sam Phillips fan. We found ourselves at the same table. I can’t remember what we ate, as the joys of the accompanying Section Quartet totally ravaged the senses. I have little memory of what songs were played or even what the opening number was. Bruce might know. I was just engrossed in the overall Samness of the night.
Sam Phillips’ association with the Section Quartet has continued. They make a subtle contribution to the self-produced Push Any Button, over-all the 15th album, but 10th since the 1988 name change from Leslie Ann to Sam, which happened remarkably after she’d already made four albums and a compilation to boot.
Speaking of boots, for some reason I never really understood, Sam has often been compared to Nancy Sinatra. Push Any Button is the first Phillips release where I can hear that in places, mostly on ‘You Know I Won’t’ which certainly reflects Sinatra’s late ‘60s productions by Lee Hazelwood. But the results here seem totally natural to me. The word is that this is a retro ‘60s/’70s pop album, and if that was the intention, it definitely doesn’t come across as contrived. This is Sam doing her thing, where you might hear hints of influence in places, just like anyone. If anything, she’s proceeding with her own established musical identity which is a harder thing to do than to cop some other shtick for the sake of it.
The presence of drummer Jay Bellerose does a lot to suggest Sam’s being herself, his instantly identifiable sound having already graced a number of Sam’s recordings. Bellerose’s unique percussion osmosis elevates anything he plays on. If it seems impossible for drums in themselves to be emotionally moving, ‘See You In Dreams’ ought to set you straight.
Surprisingly left for near the end is the exceptional ‘No Time Like Now’. Simple in its conception, it has that quality of many a great pop song that takes a massive concept and distills it down to a momentary but palatable food for thought. ‘What comes after living is bigger than we know’. Something or nothing, this is perhaps the most accurate line it’s possible to write on the subject, delivered without a hint of irony.
Sam’s gift with a poignant lyric is also on display with ‘Can’t See Straight’:
‘I took a turn for the worse when I tried to straighten little things about you
Who knows if you might need those bits and pieces down the road
Down the road a ways when life circles around
And you can’t see straight’
Sam’s traditional songwriting values carry off this whole thing. You could throw bricks at these songs and they’d bounce off. Maybe this is where the irony comes in. You can consider retro in as far as a recording might literally sonically sound like an older one. Fine. But hiding in the veins of the musical material itself here there’s a deep-rooted allegiance to the 20th century repertoire that peers over the shoulder of anyone who professes to be a songwriter these days, whether they’re aware of it or stupid enough not to be. Sam’s one person that can utilise that legacy and retain her dignity. Also hard to do. To me this over-rides the easy and shallow ‘retro’ tag.
Purely sonically, the faster songs do have the ragged quality of a tightly cut 45 but with the bass intact, and the slower songs dryly breathe a little more easily. It does lack the clarity and precision of producer T-Bone Burnett’s early work with Sam or the similar dry Mitchell Froom/Tchad Blake productions of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s which always purposefully rendered a small sound larger than life. But I’m splitting hairs. That button’s already been pushed. Here’s an artist in the throes of a long peak with barely a sign of wavering. PETER KEARNS
Sound = 3/5
Music = 3.5/5
More Peter Kearns at: www.thefreeformfilter.com/