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.

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