Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Butch Walker: A tribute

"And the static singes the speakers
Like a thousand hymns of inspiration
The road just winds through the canyon
Like a big black snake headed for salvation
And I'm getting closer to the truth and further from the sky"

Since he's pretty much the reason I'm as obsessed with music as I am, and since I'm borrowing a title from one of his songs for my blog, I figure there's no better place to start discussing my thoughts on music than with Mr. Butch Walker. After all, that's more or less my beginning anyway.

To say Butch Walker’s music defined that last 7 years of my life is a complete understatement. He owns half of my album of the year titles from the past decade. His music has received exponentially more play than that of any other artist in my library (except for perhaps Bruce Springsteen, but we'll get to him in good time). He’s the epitome of everything I think is right about music today. A self made, experienced professional who has gone through hell in this industry and come out with the best fans anyone could ever ask for. He’s made a career for himself in production that will allow him to do what he loves, no matter what happens. With Butch, it’s always fans first; his brilliant, life affirming live shows are evidence of this, and I count the five times I’ve seen him live among the best nights of my life. He was my first concert, and I still remember the day (August 1st, 2006, in Detroit). And, along with maybe two or three other artists, he is responsible for my passionate love of music, my thirst to hear everything I can, and my drive to become the best performer that I can be. I cherish all of his records for different reasons, and all of them have meant a lot to me at different times. However, I'll start with Letters, since that's where the whole story begins anyway.

Ever since I was a kid, I've loved music: whether it was my stepdad blasting "Spirit in the Night" by Bruce Springsteen while getting ready for a date with my mom, my mom playing the James Taylor greatest hits in the car, or sitting the basement with my brother, listening to his Wallflowers, Counting Crows and Oasis CDs, I've always been a sucker for a good song, but up until 8th grade, my interest was mostly contained to what my older brother was listening to or to the more tolerable radio fodder (except for my brief love of Creed, but the less said of that, the better.) But in the fall of 2004, something happened that made me really fall in love with music, and ever since then, there's been no turning back. The album that sparked that love, that made me realize just how powerful and life-altering music could be, was Jimmy Eat World's Futures (another long story, another blog post), but that was only step one in a longer process. I had a favorite album, now I needed a favorite artist.

That artist presented himself to me on a rather dreary day in early February 2005, when the bored 15 year old version of myself stumbled upon a song called "Mixtape" by a guy named Butch Walker in some corner of the internet. That song, with it's memorable piano line, heartfelt lyrics, and big chorus, sparked my interest, but I think it was something else that made me really want to pursue Walker's music further. The version of "Mixtape" that I had found online was a live acoustic take from an album called This is Me...Justified and Stripped. That title was a play on albums by Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera, right down to the font on the cover, and the live version featured Butch bantering with the crowd in between songs.
"Mom, remember when you sat me on my knee and said, 'if you're ever gonna get laid, you'd better play some fucking Carpenters"?, he says, in a playful tone, before singing the chorus from that band's biggest hit. This guy had some serious vocal talent, that was evident right away, but he also had loads of charisma and a sense of humor that made me think he would be the kind of guy I'd want to just hang out with for hours after seeing him play a concert. He continues by saying: "and then a friend of mine at school said 'dude if you're gonna get laid, you better make some good mixtapes.' ...so I did!" before launching into the song. The performance in question isn't even Butch at his best - I've heard him do that song better on a various occasions - but the way he sounded, in a completely raw environment, with just him on an acoustic and a buddy playing the drums, blew me away and instantly made me want to hear more.

That led me to Letters, and I can still remember the first time I heard it: the soaring choruses of opener "Maybe It's Just Me" and "Uncomfortably Numb", the summer dusk vibe of "So At Last", or the chilling emotional power of songs like "Joan", "Best Thing You Never Had" and "Don't Move", where it sounds like Walker is singing as though his life depended on it. I remember laughing at the sarcastic lyrics of "Race Cars & Goth Rock", thinking "Promise" was almost the perfect love song, almost being brought to tears by the heartbreaking "Thank You Note", and immediately restarting the album after the last chords of "Stateline" faded away, leaving Walker to sing the final words of the record: "Thinking of you with my last breath."

Letters became my favorite album of all time, and Walker my favorite artist. I explored his first solo album, the power-pop inspired Left of Self-Centered and even bought the records by his previous band the Marvelous 3 for a couple of bucks off amazon: Hey! Album and Readysexgo!, the latter of which prompted my parents to sit me down and ask me if I was ordering porn off the internet. By the time Butch released his next album (The Rise & Fall of Butch Walker and the Let's-Go-Out-Tonites!) in July of 2006, I was more than a die hard fan. Walker's music was my soundtrack and the one trump card I needed to be absolutely certain that I had better music taste than all my friends (I'm still pretty sure I do). The Rise & Fall was and is the perfect summer album: a near-flawless collection of glam-infused rock songs, Rise & Fall is all fun. From the instantly memorable opener, "Hot Girls in Good Moods", to the la-la-la chorus of "Too Famous to Get Fully Dressed", all the way to the alt-country ditty "Rich People Die Unhappy" and the anthemic singer/songwriter masterpiece "When Canyons Ruled the City" that close the album, The Rise & Fall was full of Walker trying sounds he hadn't on his past few albums. Letters and Left of Self-Centered were power-pop, but this time, he was more interested in classic rock (which was fitting, since the title was an obvious play on a David Bowie record.)

It was that tour when I first saw Walker live, and the show was one of the most unforgettable I've ever seen. The details could fill a blog post by themselves, but suffice to say that it was the hottest day of the year (temperatures exceeded 100 degrees) and that the inside of the club was, more or less, a gateway into the bowels of hell. And still, somehow, Walker managed to send chills down my neck when he kicked his band offstage to play a pair of songs - "Joan" and "Dominoes" - solo from the piano. His voice just cut right through the heat and got to me, and it reminded me of that first time I heard him banter with a crowd on the live recording of "Mixtape". Seeing him play live, it seemed to me, was the last piece of the puzzle: this was an artist I would follow and listen to for the rest of my life.

It was over two years before Butch released another album. There were a few diversions: a live album that he released for free on his site in early 2008 and a new-wavey side project called 1969, but it wasn't until November of that year that his next record, Sycamore Meadows, surfaced. He lost his home and everything he owned in the California wildfires that year, and he named the album after the street that he had lived on. The first time I listen, I knew this was a dividing line for him: gone were the traces of power-pop that had covered his first two records and parts of his third, replaced by more folk and classic rock influences. And although his signature sarcasm was still there, Sycamore Meadows was a more serious record - more in the vein of Letters than The Rise & Fall. He channeled his idols: Tom Petty on "The Weight of Her", Elvis Costello on "Passed Your Place..." and Bruce Springsteen on "Closer to the Truth & Further From the Sky", while still retaining his own persona as an artist (he tells his entire story on the fantastic "Going Back/Going Home"), and the result was, arguably, the finest collection of songs Walker has put to record to date. My brother and I saw him two more times on that tour, and then two more nights in a row when he returned to the same venues just over a year later, this time in support of his 2010 effort, I Liked You Better When You Had No Heart.

If there's one thing you can say about Butch, it's that he'll never make the same record twice. Where Sycamore Meadows moved things in a more folky and classic rock direction, I Liked You Better... is awash in Beatles pop, southern rock and country, and even though, for the first time since Walker had become my favorite arist, the album did not claim my album of the year title, it was still more than a solid effort. The best songs on the record, the gorgeous alt-country ballad "Don't You Think Someone Should Take You Home", the southern rock rave-up of "She Likes Hair Bands" and the bluesy, Johnny Cash referencing "Days/Months/Years" , were still among his best songs, period. And those tour dates? Might have been the best yet.

Which leads me to the present: another year, another Butch Walker record, this one dropping at the end of the month (called The Spade, and you can rest assured that I'll offer my thoughts on that one as soon as I get my hands on it.) I've spent a lot of words trying to explain why Walker and his music means so much to me, and I think it comes down to one thing: Walker is a lot like me. I see myself up onstage when he plays, I relate to his songs, I love his voice and the way he produces records, and I love his music taste. I love that every time I see him live, he somehow manages to top the previous time. And I love the fact that, even after I've soundtracked my life to them time and time again and even after hearing them each hundreds of times, I can still come back to his albums and they'll sound just as good as the day I first heard them, like an old friend. Ever since I first heard Butch Walker, on that February day in 2005, I've been looking for another artist who can do what he did for me. Someone to change the way I listen to music and the way I look at the world, someone who can put on a live show with such electricity and charisma, someone who's records I could soundtrack my life to, over and over again, without ever getting tired of them. It's only happened once, in late 2008 when I realized how great Bruce Springsteen really was.

But like I said earlier, we'll get to him in good time.

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