Any misplaced assumption that Butch Walker is a serious serious musician is immediately set to rest with ‘Rock Vocal Power,’ the skit which heralds the beginning of the veteran singer-songwriter’s debut solo release, 2002’s Left of Self-Centered
. In a campy take-off of those familiar infomercials which offer miracle results in conspicuously short periods for amounts only people who find the time to take in late-night infomercials seem to be able to expend, we’re treated to a sales pitch for a wonder-product which can transform even the most mediocre vocalist into to one resembling “one of today’s rock singers.” With poignant testimonial from satisfied customer Scott Stapp, and a manageable plan of just “six easy payments of $69.95” (and it’s available on CD, cassette, 8 track, Minidisc, Laserdisc, Betamax , vinyl, or in Braille!), it’s an attractive offer, if rather irritating on the fifty-ninth listen.
It’s a rather brave statement of intent for the artist who’s been dropped from more labels than most of us have dropped babies- thinly-veiled Creed-bashing isn’t as popular with label execs as you’d think- but it does provide some sort of intellectual base (as applicable as that phrase is to a big dumb rock record) for what follows, finishing with the closing line “you’ll never have to sing like this guy again!” before Walker’s voice segues in the first track proper, lead single ‘My Way.’
For his part, Walker is somewhat of a troubadour of the modern rock scene, himself a veteran of the fringe mainstream for much of the past calendar decade. He played guitar for early ‘90s outfit Southgang, fusing country and an exaggerated southern white trash image with the more mundane rock of Bon Jovi and Poison. Returning to his hometown of Atlanta from LA, where he spent the remainder of the decade, Floyd’s Funk Revival, a curiously self-explanatory moniker, was formed from the ashes of Southgang and when it died a death the three core members went on to form the power-pop outfit Marvelous 3, who skirted various manifestations of the style from laid-back indie pop to balls-out stadium rock. After an early MTV hit with ‘Freak of the Week,’ the band failed to find firm footing in the pop market and was eventually dropped.
It was from here that Butch Walker the solo artist was born; after the demise of the Marvelous 3 he took on a number of studio production jobs (he produced or co-produced all four Marvelous 3 releases) for prominent pop-rock artists (SR-71 and Injected chief among them). Developing his trade in the high-budget pop studios, Walker persuaded Arista to allow him the freedom to produce his own solo effort. The catch- if it hasn’t got hits, they won’t lift more than a finger to promote it. So Walker called long-time collaborator Jim Ebert, who’s worked with everyone from Madonna to Ice Cube, and Self frontman Matt Mahaffey to help produce the album. Harnessing all the styles of Walker’s past and more, the record reads like an aural bibliography- through the predominantly pop-rock sound bleeds traces of hair rock, synth pop, pure pop, even Rick Springfield!
The key to Left of Self-Centered
is Walker’s success at combining a rich diversity in sound and style with consistency and continuity- a balance that most pop and rock records are woe to strike. The tracks are grouped together in a consciously progressive manner; the early tracks are fast, fun and unashamedly geared for the crowds: these songs beg to be consumed and regurgitated, whether or not one yields to the demand. The core of the record is somewhat more progressive, combining more sophisticated sounds and structures without attempting to surrender the radio-friendly edge, while the final tracks become progressively more sparse and reflective with continued melodic and harmonic sophistication, never losing the characteristic anthemic nature.
Though it’s conceivable that any of the tracks on Left of Self-Centered
has the right characteristic to represent the marketable side of any modern rock band (saying nothing of that band’s quality), three of the album’s eleven proper tracks were minor radio hits, while just two received CD single releases. First up was ‘My Way’ (not to be confused with the amped-up Sinatra track of the same period), his perpetual set-opener and the most energetic (and therefore poppy) of the bunch. It’s revolving tongue-in-cheek “rebellion but not really” theme could seem out of place among the narratives that dominate the album, but placed at the front it feels more like an extension of the intro track.
The bulk of the album is reserved for Walker’s passion for storytelling, whereby the singer’s obvious intelligence and talent as a writer are reined in by his hair rock roots, resulting in a bizarre fusion of semi-intellectual cock rock tales. In ‘Suburbia’ he relates a number of mini-tales from a suburban town to a funky rock beat, drawing on the hackneyed “outcast as the hero” motif: the football star who fades away after high school, the abused wife who kills her husband and, in a bizarrely prophetic moment considering the songs were created simultaneously in isolation, he squeezes the ‘Sk8r Boi’ legend into a mere sixteen lines! ‘Trouble’ explores the difficulties of an unplanned pregnancy (with the suitably sensitive chorus “I gave in/You gave out/I put in/You put out/And you screamed/And I shouted/Now we’re both in lots of trouble”), while ‘Diary of a San Fernando Sexx Star’ combines breezy synth runs that are equal parts Billy Joel and Ric Ocasek with a real-life tale of a “little Jewish princess” from Butch’s hometown who runs away to become a porn star in Hollywood.
Perhaps the most interesting tracks on the album are the twins ‘Get Down’ and ‘Into The Black,’ the former featuring vocals from our hero’s ex-wife and Floyd’s Funk Revival co-star Christine Lloree, now an established solo artist in her own right, and the latter a bass track from none other than Nikki Sixx of Motley Crue. Structurally, they’re both straight-forward pop songs like those already highlighted, but they’re re-cast here with stirring sparse arrangements, drawing on hip-hop, funk and electro-pop to create some quite novel moods; ‘Get Down’ in particular contrasts a clipped funk-informed vocal with light industrial-rock touches and carefully arranged synthesised strings for certainly one of the more original pop songs of recent years.
Glimpses of Walker’s career to come are laid bare (literally) with the stripped emotion of single ‘Sober’ and fan favourites ‘If (Jeannie’s Song)’ and ‘Take Tomorrow (One Day at a Time)’. ‘Sober’ is the only truly self-concerned composition on offer and, fittingly, features the vocal that could most easily be considered ‘over-dramatic,’ though the boundaries between what’s considered gratuitous and what’s considered honest self-abandon vary by the listener. More closely than anything else on offer, it follows the oh-so-familiar post-Nirvana quiet verse loud chorus formula, however the distorted guitars thankfully over more in the way of variety than the standard Johnny Ramone-type chord stabs.
‘Take Tomorrow’ was written in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks and adequately reflects the need for re-assurance many felt in a time of great confusion and uncertainty, with the chorus: “Give me all your fear/Throw it all away/Think about the good times/No matter what they say/And we’ll take tomorrow one day at a time.” Without becoming too psychologically analytical (heaven forbid) over it, its twin track ‘If (Jeannie’s Song)’ explores tracts not too far removed. The track, dedicated by name to a presumably ill close friend or relative, recycles (or re-enforces) the metaphor of taking and disposing of another’s fear: “If I could be the chains/I’d fall from you/And let you fly like an angel/If I could be your pain/I’d run from you so far away” U2 is a name I’d be reluctant to evoke in recommending anything, much less the intensely personal music presented here, however the trademark delay-soaked guitar style of The Edge adds perfectly a type of progression to the scanty acoustic guitar and drum arrangements of the two signature.
Whether testing the limits of good taste with his no-holds-barred “window to my soul” vocals or, again, testing the limits of good taste with almost cartoonish displays of six-string alacrity, Butch Walker manages to create the type of pop album that’s simultaneously innovative, creative and has the potential to appeal across genres, as he did with the Marvelous 3, and it’s probably a factor in his lack of success. The problem this album has is that’s it’s probably too disjointed to appeal to one set market audience, yet it’s so beautifully crafted and representative of the man behind the music that it’s prone to infatuate a large number of the 10,000 odd who actually bought it. I’ll say it again: Left of Self-Centered
reads like an author’s bibliography: each track and style leads you to another of the artist’s albums. The follow-up to Left of Self-Centered
, 2004’s Letters
, was consciously more focused which lends credence to my theory that maybe this is simply a manufactured greatest hits of sorts. Even if that’s an overstatement, it’s still an essential pop and rock album, isolated from trends and outside pressure to deliver. Buy it.