Sunday, November 27, 2011

Butch Walker - Drinking With Strangers (Book Review)

"Your youth is the most important thing you will ever have. It's when you will connect to music like a primal urge, and the memories attached to the songs will never leave you. Please, hold on to everything. Keep every note, mix tape, concert ticket stub and memory you have of music from your youth. It'll be the one that might keep you young, even if you aren't anymore. Let the music play..."

The above words sound something like the thoughts that have shot through my mind on thousands of occasions, listening to my favorite songs or albums, or to songs that have become so connected to a time of my life that they become an actual part of me. I didn't write those words though, they come from the final moments of Butch Walker's brand new memoir, entitled Drinking With Strangers. I've written a lot about Butch already on this blog: he's probably at the top of the list of those artists mentioned above, the artists who make music that becomes a part of me, and I've been a huge fan of his since that day nearly seven years ago when I stumbled upon a live version of "Mixtape" on Limewire. Since then, his songs and albums have not only become favorites of mine, but they've become soundtracks for so many important (and not-so-important) moments of my life that it's impossible for me to imagine where I'd be without them. Butch's music formed my foundation: it took me from loving music to being absolutely insane about music, it inspired me, countless times, to pursue music myself, and is pretty much the reason that I'm where I am today. Obviously, I've read a lot about Butch and about his story over the years, but reading it all in one place, from his youth all the way up to his 2008 masterpiece Sycamore Meadows (and even a hair after), proved itself to be one of the most enjoyable reading experiences of my life.

I wish more of my favorite artists would do something like this. Hearing Butch tell his own story makes it funnier, more honest and more heartfelt than it possibly could be if it were written by anyone else, and even though there are plenty of biographies for the likes of Springsteen, I would kill to read him tell his own story like Butch has here. The stories behind his songs and albums are only the beginning: it's his experience in the music industry in general, both with his own bands and with others, that provides the meat of the story. Butch was screwed over by the major label system not once, but twice (with a few more stumbles along the way), so it's no surprise that a cynicism towards the industry pervades most of the book. At it's heart though, Drinking With Strangers is about one man's struggle to overcome countless obstacles in an unforgiving industry, and that he somehow manages to battle through everything thrown his way and create both a successful career as a producer/songwriter for hire and as a true-life artist with one of the most fiercely loyal fan bases on the planet is nothing short of triumphant.

Butch has encountered a lot of people throughout his years in the industry, and unfamiliar readers will be especially surprised at just how many big music names make an appearance in his story. Many of my favorite artists have their names turn up somewhere in this book, from Springsteen to U2 to Sister Hazel (and even Andrew McMahon), while many of pop's biggest stars play even bigger roles, since Butch has produced and/or written for the likes of Pink, Avril Lavigne, Weezer, Dashboard Confessional and Katy Perry, and even played at the Grammys with Taylor Swift and Stevie Nicks. Butch tells all these stories with a comedic slant that makes them not only entertaining but, in many cases, laugh out loud hilarious. There are actually quite a few funny moments in this book, from nightmare studio sessions, to adventures with a few of Butch's childhood idols, to anecdotes about just how clueless the recording industry has become, all the way to the stories that give the book it's title, while his tendency to be quite blunt about his views on some of popular music's worst trends and bands make the book feel that much more honest and real. Butch covers a lot of emotional ground here, describing perfectly the fear that comes with following your dreams to unfamiliar territory, the strange euphoria of hearing yourself on the radio for the first time, or the betrayal and rage he felt when a song he wrote got stolen by the guy who's become the biggest songwriter in pop.

However, perhaps the most striking moments of the memoir hit with the tragic loss of Walker's home and all of material possessions in a late 2008 California Wildfire. Fans will be familiar with the story: how his house burned to the ground, taking with it everything he'd ever owned, from master tapes to his home studio to his collection of guitars, but the way he writes about how he first heard about the fire and about everything that happened in the days following is both moving and heartbreaking. The fire functions as the book's climax, with the album it inspired, Sycamore Meadows, named for the street on which he lived, painted as a true rise-from-the-ashes moment. It's a confessional chapter, one where Butch ponders the devastation as a transformative and life-affirming experience, and reading it made me tear up a bit. Meadows has always been an album that I've loved, but reading Walker's story adds a new personal depth to those songs: it's not hard to see why he still plays them regularly.

Overall, it was pretty much a given that I was going to love this book. Butch Walker is my favorite guy in the music industry. He's someone who I've always thought of in terms of his songs and his ridiculous live shows, but not one I ever expected to write a book. The fact that he actually sat down and got his entire story down on paper makes me respect him even more. Drinking With Strangers has a few grammatical missteps every now and then, but I almost think that's how it was supposed to be. It's unpolished and raw, ridiculously honest and so instantly enjoyable and accessible that it feels (probably intentionally) more like a conversation with him at a bar than it feels like a book. Butch writes with a great voice, alternating between raucous humor and genuine heart and offering a ton of advice and insight on one of the most challenging industries out there. It goes without saying that this is a must read (probably multiple times) for all Butch fans, hardcore and casual, but I'd also recommend it to all music fans in general, or to any musician who's thinking about trying their hand in the music industry. Once again, I wish more of my favorite artists would do something like this, but if I had to choose one, Butch would probably be at the top of the list, so I'm absolutely thrilled to have this book: I'm sure it's one I will revisit, time and time again. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

"I remember when we could sleep on stones:" U2's Achtung Baby, Twenty Years Later

 U2 - Achtung Baby
Island Records, 1991
Five stars

In 1991, a year and a day after I was born, U2 released their long-awaited follow-up to The Joshua Tree, an album that was (and still is) considered as one of the greatest masterpieces in rock and roll. People seem to forget that on their first few albums, U2 were a band dwelling firmly in the genre of post-punk, far from the arena-filling sound they're known for now. The Joshua Tree completed a metamorphosis (which had begun on War and continued on The Unforgettable Fire), and turned them into a larger-than-life arena rock band. Within that album's first three songs (still arguably the strongest opening to any record I've ever heard), they had created a sound that countless of bands are still trying to emulate and which they are still, in many ways, trying to live down. The songs on Joshua were big, bombastic, glorious and inspirational: it was their American record, full of cinematic, expansive and spiritually yearning songs, all led by Bono's incredible vocal performance, still one of the best ever put to record. Rolling Stone wrote that the record catapulted the Irish quartet "from stars to superstars," and it's easy to see why.

A couple years later, after the dust of the disastrous Rattle and Hum project had started to clear, U2 holed up at Hansa Studios in Berlin. The Berlin wall had just fallen, and the band was seeking inspiration from a city reunited, but the atmosphere proved stifling, and the band seemed fresh out of ideas. Conflict over musical direction rendered the early sessions almost useless, and nearly resulted in the break-up of a band that had only so recently seemed like they were on top of the world. Then, out of a skeletal guitar riff composed by the Edge, Achtung Baby began to emerge. That guitar riff would go on to become "One," the album's centerpiece ballad, a song still regarded not only as the band's greatest gift to the world, but one of the greatest songs of all time, period. Bono's lyrics, which painted a picture of a relationship coming to a painful end, reflected the atmosphere of the early sessions, but the song was a transition, and would ultimately re-inspire the band to create what would become this album. While I would personally put a couple of The Joshua Tree's tracks ahead of it ("Where the Streets Have No Name" is top five, all time for me), "One" is the kind of song that only comes along a few times in a lifetime. Everything about the song, from the Edge's guitar intro to the emotion in Bono's voice as the song hits it's climax, still sounds as fresh today as it ever did. It's been covered countless times, in different styles, contexts and environments, but it still sounds best as it was 20 years ago, on this record. And it's only just the beginning.

When it was released, on November 19th, 1991, Achtung Baby was heralded as a triumphant return for one of the greatest bands in rock and roll, and as a darker, more introspective record. Now, it's considered one of the most successful reinventions in the history of rock music, a record that blurs the lines between pop, rock, and dance music, and one that brought U2 into a new decade on top of their game; it's all of those things in one. It's pop music at it's most glorious (singles "Even Better Than the Real Thing" and "Mysterious Ways"), it's heartbreak (the aforementioned "One," the piano based "So Cruel" or the sweeping power balladry of "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses"), it's the sound of, as Bono put it, "four men chopping down the Joshua Tree" (the shimmering beats and falsetto chorus of "The Fly"). It touches upon wistful, lovelorn nostalgia (the nighttime anthem and album highlight "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)"), Biblical rewrites (the conversation between Jesus and Judas that Bono imagines on "Until the End of the World"), the band's time in Berlin (rousing opener "Zoo Station") and even stumbling home drunk ("Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World"), before it descends into complete darkness on the album's final two cuts ("Acrobat" and "Love is Blindness").

There's not a less-than-stellar song on the set, and U2's recent reissue, complete with a disc of early versions of these songs and a disc of b-sides (as well as the album's follow-up, the disjointed pop record, Zooropa, which is never really thought of as anything but a footnote on the U2 legacy, but which contains some truly great songs), show that U2 are remarkably good at editing their own material. Achtung Baby is about as perfect an album as artists who aren't Bruce Springsteen can make, and sits as one of my personal favorites. These songs have an ability to grow and change as time passes, and they remain not only relevant, but truly powerful long after much of the music released around the same time has begun to sound dated. And while The Joshua Tree will always be my favorite U2 album, every time I listen to Achtung Baby, there's a moment, usually somewhere around the chilling bridge of "Ultraviolet," where I think the band might have peaked here. It's a truly stunning set of songs, wonderfully written and performed, richly produced and flawlessly sequenced, and the result is one of the greatest albums of the 90's, and of all time.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

"Echoes of a city that's long overgrown"

Florence + the Machine - Ceremonials
 Island Records, 2011
Four stars

Florence + the Machine have always seemed like a pretty minor pop diversion to me. Maybe it was the fact that the first version of their massive pop single "Dog Days Are Over" that I heard was the one on Glee, a show that has the strange effect of making me like songs less than I otherwise would have. Their debut album, entitled Lungs, never really caught on with me either either. Lead singer and brainforce Florence Welch had an interesting voice, and her songs were far from the usual pop music fare, but aside from a few moments of glory ("Dog Days" being one of them), I guess I never really gave it the attention that it probably deserved, not even after I saw them open for U2 on the final leg of their 360 degree tour. However, it was obvious from that show that Florence had charisma: she paraded around the stage, and held the attention of ten thousand audience members fairly easily, but even then, I was so set on the main event that, as tight a musical outfit as the opening band obviously was, they were still just that: an opening band.

That's all about to change, as Florence + the Machine move up to headliner status with their sophomore album, called Ceremonials. The time spent with U2 on the highest grossing tour in history obviously had a big impact on them, as ghosts of that band's early 90's records pop up in nearly every track, and Welch takes to making the kind of larger than life gestures that would make Bono proud. Ceremonials is bigger, brasher, darker and better than it's predecessor, filled to the brim with massive choruses, explosive tribal drums and gothic flourishes, all of which revolve around the core of the band's sound: Welch's unique and powerful voice. She sings like a woman possessed from the get-go, and while the fact that the emotional intensity really never dips below a certain point may result in some finding the disc (which clocks in at a lengthy 56 minutes) feel exhausting or repetitive, repeat listens yield rewarding discoveries and emotional textures that are hard to catch on the first time through. The more I listen, the more I think that Ceremonials is one of the finest albums in a great year, and that's not something I expected at all when I dove in for my first listen.

Ceremonials opens with the rather subdued "Only If For a Night," which presents the album's flair for dark, orchestral chamber pop. The drums pound heavy and high in the mix on the chorus, and Welch's vocals, multi-tracked and surrounded in reverb, sound eerie and massive. Distant pianos and backing vocals ring in the background throughout, and immediately, the album's mood and sonic template are established. Speaking of the latter, listening to this thing on a good pair of headphones is one hell of an experience, and kudos must be paid to producer Paul Epworth, who did some work on Adele's 21 (the biggest selling record of the year), and who gives the album an otherworldly quality.

Second single, "Shake it Out," is an album highlight, due mostly to the desperation Welch pours into her vocal performance. The chorus is huge, but it's the verse and the bridge that hit home the hardest, thanks to what might be the year's biggest powerhouse vocal; this is an anthem in the making, and if there's any justice, it will be an even bigger success than "Dog Days" was; I'd certainly call it the better song. First single "What the Water Gave Me" is a darker, more bass driven track, and is a less obvious single-choice, though it's probably more representative of the album's overall sound. Like many of the songs on the album, the song is based around a propulsive build; once the instrumentation fills out and Welch lets loose, the song explodes, and the result is stunning.
"Never Let Me Go" is another favorite of mine, a gospel-tinged catharsis built around a refrain of back-up voices and a cathedral-filling chorus that sits easily among the album's best. It's damn-near flawless on record, but it's also the kind of song that could end up being a real religious experience live: U2 had a bunch of those on The Joshua Tree, and it's not too surprising that Welch wanted one of her own after seeing Bono belt out "Where the Streets Have No Name" near the end of the show every night on tour.

After three heavyweights, Ceremonials takes a bit of a respite on "Breaking Down," a more straightforward, relaxed pop song, and "Lover to Lover," which wouldn't have sounded out of place on Adele's record (indeed, Welch seems to be channeling her, vocally). Here, it feels a bit out of place and ends up being the album's weakest moment, an inconsequential piece of filler that would be better if the album weren't already a bit long to begin with. "No Light, No Light" plunges us back into darkness though, and that's where this album sounds the most comfortable. Heralded by an organ intro, the song explodes, with a harp accent and a quick crescendo, into a sky-scraping chorus and some of the most personal lyrics on the record. "Would you leave me if told you what I'd become?" she asks on the bridge, where harp flourishes add a nice subtlety to the musical palette. Her voice soars, breaking into falsetto at points, and it's one of the most chilling moments of the record. "Seven Devils" is the perfect companion, a haunting slow-burner that wouldn't be successful in any other hands, but Welch's lilting voice gives it a pulse.

The massive "Heartlines," which opens with tribal drums and gang vocals, builds into one of the album's highlights, a crescendo enforced by Florence's mountainous vocals and a truly bombastic arrangement, all leading to in infectious chorus. It feels like it could be the closer, but we're not quite there yet. "Spectrum" opens in darkness but transitions to pure pop glory, while the anthemic and gorgeously melodic penultimate track, "All This & Heaven Too" might be the album's biggest triumph, as well as it's most instantly rewarding one.

U2's career reinventing classic Achtung Baby turns twenty this week (more on that later), but it's influence is still being felt today. Coldplay's latest has drawn many comparisons to that record, what with it's synth-heavy hooks and titanic production value, but Ceremonials hits far closer to the spirit of U2's second masterpiece than just about any album since. L.A. Times critic Robert Hilburn once called Achtung Baby "U2's daring descent into darkness," and just as that album ended amid turmoil and shadow on the transcendent "Love is Blindness," so does Florence end her record. "Leave My Body" finds the singer aiming for heaven, but she sounds significantly closer to hell in the song's swirling piano/acoustic foundation and it's pounding drums or far off backing vocals. "I'm gonna leave my body, I'm gonna lose my mind," she claims on the song's chorus. It's a resounding declaration amid a dark album's darkest hour, a climactic symphony of sound that serves as one of the most chilling and consuming climaxes of any album this year. It caps off a record that feels like a rebirth; a near-masterpiece that should catapult Florence + the Machine into the ranks of the most premiere artists in the business. No matter what, Welch is undoubtedly one of the most captivating personas in pop music. Most artists with a hit like "Dog Days" up their sleeve would aim to write a full album of pop hits on the follow up, but Ceremonials is anything but safe. It's an honest-to-God album in an age of singles, a strikingly left-of-the-mainstream work of art where Welch airs her demons, sings her heart out, and comes out sounding like a true rock and roll star. And you can't beat that.