Review Summary: Butch Walker's side-project issue a varied, if too rarely spectacular, debut.
1969 was a great year for rock music. Maya Angelou was born.
Or something, I dunno. Also of note that year was the violence at Altamont, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s ‘bed-in’ to protest their lack of media coverage, and the birth in Cartersville, Georgia of one Butch Walker. 36 eventful years later, during which Rolling Stones ceased to be worth killing for and John Lennon was worth killing, 1969 was a born. A collaboration between Aussie guitarist Michael Guy Chislett, Atlantan drummer Darren Dodd and the now-elderly Walker, the three had previously hooked up as part of Walker’s solo touring and recording ensemble the Let’s-Go-Out-Tonites before Chislett left to join nerdy scene rockers The Academy Is… in 2007. It was during an impromptu jam session that their first composition was born, spurred on by Chislett’s continuing experimentation with electronics and an Edge-like minimalist, effects-laden guitar style.
Recorded in the space of a week or so in Venice Beach, California, Maya
very much feels like a record that was put together quickly and without fuss. Far from taking away from the experience, Maya
’s improvised nature is one of its most endearing features. Despite the immaculate recording and production value, Maya
revels in its own simplicity and excels in its understated musicality. Drummer Darren Dodd is a revelation, dropping the conservative glam rock style that typifies his work with the Let’s-Go-Out-Tonites in favour of a looser feel and dense, off-kilter beats that belie the project’s new wave/electronic roots. Chislett, who composed the bulk of the music himself, demonstrates just why The Academy Is…
saw fit to wrestle him from Walker’s grasp (while he was producing their album no less!), while the latter even shows a prodigious late-in-life talent for the bass.
The track that started it all, ‘Wreck Me’ is based upon a clipped, uptempo, Edge-like guitar riff of Chislett’s feeding into an aggressive/cathartic power pop chorus that is quintessentially Walker. The track has been knocking around for a good two years in various forms, making its radio debut during Walker’s UK tour in 2006 and having been introduced on the live circuit some time before, meaning enough time has passed to justify proclaiming the song one of the finest Walker- or indeed Chislett- has been involved with. As if to stress the point, Walker drops his best line for a good half-decade in the chorus, taunting, “I don’t need anything to do / Drive me into you / And wreck me.”
‘Ready To Explode’ bears some sonic similarity to ‘Wreck Me,’ working the quiet/loud dynamic to maximum effect, and is the only other track that would fit seamlessly into one of Walker’s solo album, suggesting he may have had a larger role in these tracks than any of the others.
‘Wreck Me’ and ‘Ready To Explode’ are anomalies, songs that bear Chislett’s fingerprints but are comfortably dominated by the larger personality in the group. Not so the rest of the disc, which for all intents and purposes sounds like a proper band record, a well thought-out jam session that subtly emphasises the Australian’s talents without coming across as a guitar
album. Though responsible for all of the lyrics and vocal melodies, Walker takes a back seat for much of the proceedings, a move that perhaps doesn’t pay off as generously as ‘Wreck Me’ or ‘Ready To Explode,’ but exudes much more of a distinctive character as a result. ‘Wednesday,’ another of the tracks previewed back in 2006, sees the singer closely follow the chiming guitar melodies that punctuate its plodding beat and funky post-punk bass riff, and the chorus is understated but no less catchy as a result.
The flip-side of the CD sees sparser arrangements and slower tempos, and is perhaps the weaker part of the album as a result, though it is a rare treat to hear Butch Walker resisting the urge to swamp a ballad in strings and excess ornamentation (take a bow, ‘Best Thing You Never Had). ‘And The Nominees Are’ hinges upon a piercing guitar riff that wouldn’t sound out of place in The Killers
’ armoury and the twee art rock of ‘All Talk No Action’ is offset with a muscular bass line. Another highlight, ‘Offline,’ brings to mind the odd combination of Damien Rice
, the softly-sung Walker trading vocal melodies with the harsher Chislett as the track builds to an anthemic stadium-indie rock crescendo.
The hidden track, a cover of James
’ classic ‘Laid,’ brings the album to a close with aplomb, though it perhaps unfairly overshadows the original tracks that precede it. The lulling electronics of ‘Am I Still On’ and its wistful refrain of “don’t let my heart slip away”
would have been just as capable of closing such a varied, if too rarely spectacular, debut record.