The second-to-last lyric on Sam Phillips’ new album, Push Any Button, could be a motto for every kind of sun-kissed summer music: “This world is so beautiful, for no reason at all.” Yet while Phillips’ story as a singer, songwriter and spirit has taken her through three decades of transformation so far, she isn’t the type to toss worry to the surf and paddle after her bliss. This album compacts 10 tunes into less than 30 minutes, intended both in its title and in its light-but-dynamic arrangements to evoke a 1960s jukebox full of Brill Building-era hits (in contrast with the swipe-any-touchscreen interactions of contemporary pop listening). But even here she can’t resist an infusion of rue, a lime twist of introspection to cut the fizz of the pop.
This is exactly what makes Phillips’ palate cleanser so welcome in mid-August of the summer of 2013. This is a season that’s been more obsessed than any other with identifying its signature anthems, a fever that broke with Stephen Colbert’s singalong sendup of the “Get Lucky” vs. “Blurred Lines” standoff last week. There could be any number of explanations for the peculiar media hype around that rivalry: that last year’s “Call Me Maybe” offered up a rare, all-conquering template of summer-songiness; that maybe there’s a buzz in the air thanks to nascent (if uneven) economic recovery; that the music business these days has an overall desperate-for-attention, dog-in-heat personality. But all the striving gets a bit humidly oppressive.
Of the two dominant Pharrell-featuring musical pheromone traps, “Get Lucky” had me at the first Niles Rogers guitar flutter. It took a late-July wedding in Winnipeg and some twerkin’ with toddlers and the adult cousins of cousins to persuade me “Blurred Lines” wasn’t faking its bubbling funk. Still, what both of them (plus also-ran contenders like “I Love It” or “Treasure”) bypass in their bum rush to ecstasy is any whisper of the poignant. That’s not true of every summer song; think of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” or “When Doves Cry.” It’s a narrowness that I suspect will limit how deeply this year’s bangers sink into the sandy beaches of our memories. Party fixation is all very well for the first months of summer, when sweat and sunscreen still smell fresh and there’s only the anticipation of pleasure ahead. But what of the cooling nights coasting down toward September, when we know the glow hasn’t much longer to go and the smack of watermelon now carries a few vodka-sharp notes of regret?
It’s for just that phase that I’d call upon Phillips, the Los Angeles veteran every pop fan should but doesn’t know: She saunters in, singing, “The sun has burned the skin of my heart/ I’m more than halfway through.” That song, “Going,” is more about middle age than about midsummer, but its pizzicato-perched waltz is perfect for a meditation on any of the cycles to which the turning of the Earth subjects us all.
Those lines don’t arrive until, suitably enough, the album’s midpoint. Where it starts is with more of a rocker, “Pretty Time Bomb.” That tune seems to address the wreckage of young celebrities such as Lindsay Lohan and Amanda Bynes as a microcosm of modern cultural carelessness, with a sound portrait drawn in bopping guitars, hollow drumbeats, and junkyard metal clatter. It might come off as condescending if you don’t know that Phillips was a post-adolescent star herself when she got started in 1983, under her given name Leslie Ann Phillips, in the Christian-music market.
The messages sent by her songs then, such as “Black and White in a Grey World,” were the reverse of the ambivalence that’s since become her compass; her label touted her as the Cyndi Lauper of the Christ-conscious. She grew out of fundamentalism and into a partnership both domestic and musical with producer T-Bone Burnett (O Brother Where Art Thou?, Steve Earle, Elvis Costello, etc.). Her new persona and collaboration yielded a series of smart, shimmering, Beatles-besotted, never-quite-mainstream 1980s and ’90s albums on Virgin Records, then several more in a rich, acoustic cabaret-folk mode on Nonesuch early in the new century, until the couple (who also have a daughter together) went through what Phillips has acknowledged was a painful split.
So when she sings to the young starlets who seem to be targeted here, “It’s easy to change your name but hard to change your life,” it’s an insight she’s earned.
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