Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Butch Walker

(The author requests your kind indulgence for the lack of posts the two previous weeks, the first on account of his birthday and the latter due to an unexpected trip to New York to preview Green Day's American Idiot on Broadway.)

There are some songwriters who have a true sense of what elements are necessary for a catchy tune. These folks have a refined appreciation for how the precise blend of witty lyrics, an irresistible chorus hook or the well-timed string part or four-part harmony can satiate our craving for humor, originality and accessibility in a single stroke. Brian Wilson, Rivers Cuomo, Ben Folds and Adam Schlesinger, among others, have such talents, but you've probably heard of them. You probably have not heard of Butch Walker.

After spending the late 80's and early-to-mid 90's fronting earnest, but not terribly successful outfits such as SouthGang, The Flyods and Marvelous 3, Walker has not only produced a series of catchy solo records, but has also penned tunes for a collection of top-drawer talent, including Avril Lavigne, Pink, American HiFi, Pete Yorn, Fall Out Boy, Taylor Swift and, most recently, Weezer's "If You're Wondering If I Want You To (I Want You To)." While I may not be the biggest fan of all of these acts, Walker's resume as a songwriter in demand speaks for itself.

With these efforts as a backdrop, in 2010, Walker produced his latest album, I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart. The 11-track production scores a number of instantly likable tunes that make plain Walker's talents as both musician and wordsmith. Leading off with the soft-pedaled social commentary of "Trash Day," the number could have easily appeared on Fountains of Wayne's power pop masterpiece Welcome Interstate Managers with lyrics like
"trash day in Atlanta, Ga., I can hear the sanitary trucks from two miles away," and a screaming Hammond organ part. Its 3 minutes and 7 seconds of pure saccharine pop joy.

Walker follows-up later on in the collection with the Elvis Costello-esque "Temporary Title," with a driving acoustic guitar rhythm track and plenty of "whoa-oahs" and "la las" in a singalong chorus, layered with strings and a Farfisa organ. Meanwhile, "She Likes Hair Bands" features a stomp-stomp-clap chorus in the Queen or Kansas tradition that will have listeners humming along by the 3rd refrain, which transitions without pause at its pinnacle into the equally upbeat "House of Cards," which has much in common with the recent syncopated work of the California group The Broken West.

Where Walker's I Liked It Better... runs into trouble is not with any of the songs, per se, but rather with the collection's sequencing. The tracks referenced above represent the album's uptempo numbers, which are balanced out with another half-dozen slower tunes. This is fine, and individually, each offering is enjoyable, but instead of front-loading the record with the more upbeat songs, Walker inserts a trio of less accessible material in its 3rd through 5th tracks. For instance, "Don't You Think Someone Should Take You Home" is a pleasant folk-rock number with lovely string and horn interludes. But when followed by the ethereal "Stripped Down Version" (which, in fact, is a bit of a misnomer) and the more somber ode to gambling with foreign currency, "Canadian Ten," – a natural album-closer – the track order dumps a bucket of cold water on what would otherwise be a quite buoyant effort. So, while I certainly recommend you purchase I Liked It Better... in its entirety, I'd suggest that you use the electronic music technology and applications available today to re-sequence the collection thusly:

1) Trash Day
2) Temporary Title
3) Pretty Melody
4) She Likes Hair Bands
5) House of Cards
6) Don't You Think Someone Should Take You Home
7) Days/Months/Years
8) Stripped Down Version
9) Be Good Until Then
10) They Don't Know What We Know
11) Canadian Ten

Come for: "She Likes Hair Bands"
Stay for: "Trash Day"
You'll be surprised by: "Don't You Think Someone Should Take You Home"

P.S. A true reflection of the promise of Walker's work can be found in a single track off his 2008 record, Sycamore Meadows: "The Weight of Her." Here, Walker conjures a spot-on reflection of the vocal harmonies of Tom Petty's "Here Comes My Girl" in the chorus, which fit extremely well with the tune's Americana vibe. If you're after a rousing intro to Walker's overall work, start here.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Valery Gore

If you know me and my taste and music, you know that I like songs with horns. I also like songs played on the piano. Tronna's own Valery Gore produces songs that have both piano and horns, which makes me like her 2008 offering, Avalanche to Wandering Bear.

Now, it would be not only unfair to compare Gore's work to a certain other Canadian songstress/pianist, it would also largely be inaccurate. Her jazz-cum-brainy playing style is more similar to Randy Newman's and her vocal approach more akin to A Fine Frenzy's Alison Sudol than Ms. Mitchell's vocal acrobatics. She takes her songwriting cues from Tori Amos' slightly (ok, not slightly) bizarre songbook moreso than fellow Canuck Sarah McLaughlin's more narrative format.

Gore moves fluidly through a series of piano-focused styles in the course of Avalanche's baker's dozen tracks. The collection takes off with the effervescent "Shoes of Glass," an uptempo number in the recent piano-power pop tradition of the past decade or so, before introducing the horns in the closing third of "Another Year," which takes a full minute to warm up from Gore's solo piano-and-vocals intro.

The album's gem is the rollicking third tune, "Worried Head," replete with jubilant horn accompaniment. She channels her foremost Tori Amos on the number, with lyrics bordering on the morbid:

Without that beautifully worried head, there’d just be a bleeding neck;
A boneless back, a creeping ghost and heart attack,
without a worried head

Thankfully, the arrangement more than offsets the troubling nature of the content and moves it to the more interesting space occupied by songs like They Might Be Giants' "Turn Around" or Moxy Fruvous' "Splatter, Splatter."

Meanwhile, "Scared" rolls along like a deep cut from Thelonious Monk and mid-album track "Knife Dream" finds Gore accompanied not by her own piano parts, but a hazy jazz horn duo, which nicely draws out the warm accents of her lower alto range. And the moderate sycnopation delivered by late-album pick "Consolation" offers a welcome change of pace to the collection's outer reaches, which are largely populated by earnest, but not especially captivating ballads.

Gore does credit to The Big Smoke with her interestingly-crafted and suitably-performed record, and lets hope her span between new albums is narrower than the gap between her 2005 self-titled debut and her work here on Avalanche.

Come for: "Shoes of Glass"
Stay for: "Worried Head"
You'll be surprised by: "Consolation"

Monday, March 1, 2010


Most reviews of entertainment mediums produce their "Best Of" sections at the end of a given calendar year. Rather than that staid and predictable approach, this blog has the courage to be different – or, more likely, lazy - more than two months into the new year. Accordingly, the selection for Best Album of 2009 is the incomparably enjoyable Aim & Ignite by the briefly-named New York trio, fun.

If you know me at all, you know that I am pushing this band harder than Gary Bettman is pushing hockey right now. For a band less than a year old, fun. comes blazing out of the gate with the most ambitious recording of the year. It benefits from exceptional musicianship, daring songwriting, infectious hooks and quirky lyrics. The studio band is the compact merging of remenants of other bands in singer/lyricist Nate Reuss (formerly of The Format), multi-instrumentalist-primed Andrew Dost (previously a spare part in Anathallo) and guitarist Jack Antonoff (tracing his roots to Steel Train), fun. compresses a galaxy's worth of influences into 10 tracks of substantial variance in style, tone and pace. Regardless of their form, they all ring true to the band's moniker: fun. There are strings and horns, searing guitar solos and thunderous drum fills, gang vocals and high harmonies. One line, in particular, from the mid-album ballad "Light a Roman Candle with Me," neatly sums up the band's approach:

"if we were honest and both wrote a sonnet together,
a sandwich with everything on it..."

Beyond just piling on a ton of instruments and stewing up a melting pot of musical styles, Aim & Ignite has a decided and intentional feel to it, namely that of a well-produced LP from 1973. With Redd Kross bassist Steven McDonald spinning the knobs for Dost and Reuss' constructions, it is both impecably nuanced and positioned in a aural space that could never be confused with anything produced after 1978, in the way that an elaborite, but fragile Sufjan Stevans venture might. The band is savvy enough to offer the album on vinyl, and though the record sounds supurb under needle, it is not massively so when compared to digital formats, which draw out the collection's many subtle elements.

So, instead of my of my customary approach to pick out a few tracks from an album at hand and discuss their attributes, I'll spread out the entire record and note the influences (with links to videos of songs most similar to the fun. version) and notable aspects of each tune:

Track ** Influences ** Style
1) Be Calm ** XTC, Barenaked Ladies ** Lush Orchestration, Compact Narrative
2) Benson Hedges
** Queen, The Who, Bob Seeger ** Arena Rock
3) All the Pretty Girls
** Electric Light Orchestra ** 1977 AM Radio Hit
4) I Wanna Be the One
** The Beatles ** (Magical Mystery Tour to Sgt. Pepper's era)
5) At Least I'm Not as Sad (As I Used to Be)
** The Offspring, The Police ** Calypso
6) Light a Roman Candle with me
** Burt Baccarach ** Karen Carpenter Piano Ballad
7) Walking the Dog
** Vanpire Weekend, TV on the Radio ** House/Techno Rock
8) Barlights
** Steely Dan, Chicago (before they sucked) ** Blue-Eyed Soul
9) The Gambler
** Ben Folds ** 1st Dance @ Wedding
10 Take Your Time (Coming Home)
** The Eagles, Paul Simon's Graceland ** Americana

As you'll notice, the effort spans the spectrum of the last 40 years of development in rock-and-roll, from the genre's core to its fringes. Its sophisticated, but not weak, meaning that in as much as "Light a Roman Candle" and "The Gambler" might draw a fine bead of emotion, foot-stompers like "Barlights" and "Benson Hedges" would have no trouble filling every crevace of an arena with pure rock energy, while the masses would be hypnotized by "All the Pretty Girls" unavoidable chorus. And while recent acts like Ben Folds and to a lesser extent Metallica have produced some interesting collaborations with full-scale orchestras, this is truly a band who deserves a turn at the head of a symphony, for while Reuss, Dost and Antonoff broaden their tourning outfit to a healthy six-piece, hearing Dost's fine orchestrations – many of which he performed himself – realized in concert would truly be majestic. Let's hope they get the opportunity.

Come for: "All the Pretty Girls"
Stay for: "Barlights"
You'll be surprised by: the entire damn record

P.S. fun. is playing this Wednesday and Thursday at the 9:30 Club, supporting Jack's Mannequin (who really aren't very good, but everyone's got to pay their dues).