Friday, September 2, 2011

"Can I go back to when I was a winner?"

Butch Walker & The Black Widows - The Spade
Dangerbird Records, 2011
Four and a half stars

Almost everyone knows that Butch Walker is and always will be my favorite artist: he's one of the guys who got me into music in the first place, has a slew of near-perfect albums, and puts on the most fun live show I've ever seen. He also will never make the same album twice, and The Spade, his sixth full length solo album, proves that yet again. It's a short burst of a record, running for just over 36 minutes, and it hardly slows down for a single one of those, delivering big guitars, huge hooks and a ton of old fashioned rock and roll charisma in each of the album's ten tracks. The result is, if not one of Walker's best, still a very good album, and one that will almost certainly earn a place in my top 5 albums of the year.

 I'm of the mind that Butch is at his best when he's at his most introspective: Letters and Sycamore Meadows, two of his best records, dealt with a rough break-up and a wildfire that destroyed everything he ever owned, respectively, and both of those records found him turning inward and delivering more serious, emotional material than he's generally known for writing. Walker is a pop-music God, a go-to producer and songwriter for some of today's biggest acts, and it's not hard to figure out why: the guy can write a hook like almost no one else in the industry these days, and that, along with his playful, sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek lyrics, has become his trademark, but that's not what made me a fan in the first place. What got me originally were his ballads, where his earnest lyrics and his raw, emotional vocal delivery just cut right through me. That's not to say Walker's more common persona bothers me: on the contrary, it's always nice to hear an album like the glammed-up party record that was 2006's The Rise and Fall of Butch Walker and the Let's-Go-Out-Tonites!, because it means Walker's had a great couple of years. And that album is probably my second favorite of his anyway: a slew of terrific songs, ranging from big rock and roll to introspective piano balladry.

If The Spade has a cousin in the Walker discography, it's almost certainly The Rise & Fall..., as that record's cornerstones of glam-rock and alt-country both reappear here (the country influence was also expanded on with last year's I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart). It's apparent from the beginning of opener "Bodegas and Blood," where a loud guitar breaks the silence for the first time, that this is going to be a big, carefree, summer rock and roll album. The massive single "Summer of '89," with it's "woah-oh" hook, big chorus and Bryan Adams references, is probably the best realization of that, and it makes me wonder why Walker didn't choose to drop the album earlier in the season rather than at the tail end of it. Still, the single is one of the finest tracks here, and I'm glad he at least released that in June, since it found it's way onto just about every mix I made all summer. "Day Drunk" is classic Butch Walker, and features him pushing his vocals to the limit, while the "Come on Eileen"-rewrite that is "Synthesizers" has a irresistable sing-along chorus and pays tribute to his love of 80's pop music.


"Dublin Crow," a bizarre cross between alt-country and Irish-folk music, kicks off the record's incredibly strong closing stretch, and is one of my personal favorite songs on the album. In addition, the song, with it's handclaps and gang vocal harmonies, sounds like it will be a welcome addition to the Walker live set on his upcoming tour. "Closest Thing to You I'm Gonna Find," with Chris Unck's nostalgic lap steel complimenting the guitar lines and Walker's vocal perfectly, is arguably the best song on the album, an alt-country track that, much like the twangy "Don't You Think Someone Should Take You Home" off the last record, has me convinced that Walker should make a full album of country music and roots rock. It's also the closest this album gets to a ballad, which gives a nice break from the big pop and rock songs that populate the rest of it, and grants Walker's voice room to really soar. The song, which is reminiscent of both "Take You Home" and The Rise and Fall's "When the Canyons Ruled the City" (my favorite songs on both releases) is where Walker sounds the most relaxed and at home on this record: in his songwriting, his singing and his own frontman persona, which is all the more reason that it's a direction he should explore more than with just a track or two on future releases.
The respite doesn't last long though, as the final two tracks find the Black Widows turning the amps up to 11 and Walker rocking harder than he has since The Rise and Fall. "Bullet Belt" has arguably the album's biggest hook and a band that is clearly letting loose: Jake Sinclair's booming bass forms the foundation as Chris Unck and Fran Capitanelli duel on their guitars and Walker leads them all to the song's massive chorus. It's a song meant only to be played at maximum volume, and is one of the very best things I've heard all year, something that should absolutely become a Butch Walker live staple and one that I'll be furious at him for if he doesn't play it live on the upcoming tour (preferably at or near the end of the main set). This is the kind of song meant to set fire to a small club. "Sucker Punch," the album's closer, is in the same vein: a freewheelin', full band party of a rock song that provides a fitting end for the album, even if it's an anomaly for a guy who usually ends albums on a much more subdued note.

Overall, The Spade isn't going to end up being one of my favorite Walker releases, but it has a fantastic electricity and sponteneity about it that I really dig, something that I feel has been missing from Walker's music since The Rise and Fall. One of my only gripes with Sycamore Meadows was that I felt like Walker had fussed over it too much in the studio and had ended up overproducing it a bit, which is why I still prefer a handful of those songs in their live or demo versions. I felt the same way with a good portion of I Liked It Better..., but Walker didn't play much of that album's material on his tour last year, and I think that had a lot to do with me never growing to love it like I had loved the rest of his stuff. The Spade sounds like it could have been recorded live, from the rougher vocals to the band chatting and laughing in the studio between songs, and that's something I immediately loved about it. That said, there are no songs here that sit among his best, but for a guy who has set such a high standard for himself over the past ten years, I guess I can't fault him too much for that. The Spade is the best thing Walker has done since Sycamore Meadows and one of the best albums of the year. It could also be the basis for his best live set since the Rise and Fall... days, so here's hoping he plays most of it when I see him next month (more on that later). It's a shame that the album released so late and I missed out on this as a summer soundtrack, but chances are I'll be playing it all through the fall, and chances are better than I'll be pulling this thing out to herald the summer when the weather starts to warm up next year. Because I'm certain there's no better way to listen to this loud, fast, house-party of a record than in the hottest months of the year.

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