Singer-songwriter Sam Phillips has dabbled in several worlds beyond the traditional alternative-rock CDs that have borne her name since 1988; her career started with contemporary Christian music (her first four albums were recorded under the name Leslie Phillips), she was tapped by Amy Sherman-Palladino to contribute scores to the shows Gilmore Girls and Bunheads, and she has experimented with subscription-only online releases (The Long Play series, which comprised five EPs and an album, released from 2009 to 2011).
Push Any Button is her first conventional CD release since 2008, and it’s a whirlwind of folky pop numbers, as Phillips breezes through 10 songs in 29 minutes. The album peaks when Phillips is at her most uptempo, with pop songs so bouncy and lighthearted they might just float out of the speakers. “When I’m Alone” finds her asserting that solitude doesn’t breed loneliness with a delightfully chipper sway, while “You Know I Won’t” is a carefree number with just a hint of sassiness and twang.
Where Phillips falters, though, is in the album’s track order. Each of those stellar songs is followed by a subpar number that nearly negates the beauty of the song before it. “See You In Dreams” is an unenthused, dreamlike trance whose blandness is a stark contrast to the cheery beauty of “When I’m Alone,” while the simple musical-theater croon of “No Time Like Now” doesn’t jibe with the personality Phillips oozes on “You Know I Won’t.”
There are a few other jarring missteps here, often dealing with the album’s production. “Things I Shouldn’t Have Told You” is both pouty and assertive, but it’s hard to hear much of the song at all beneath the grating sound of rhythmic clapping. Similarly, the arrangement of “All Over Me” has a lovely balance of give and take with Phillips’ vocals, but the addition of horns gives the song a weight that doesn’t fit with its enchanting guitar line.
Phillips does at times strike gold; the closing track “Can’t See Straight” offers a simpler orchestration, letting her unhurried vocals take the spotlight. She doesn’t capture that magic consistently on the rest of the album, though, which leaves Push Any Button feeling jumpy and unfocused.