Butch Walker’s album ‘I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart’ led America’s legendary Rolling Stone magazine to proclaim him “one of America’s best singer-songwriters”. With a bunch of solo albums under his belt, plus releases with his former bands Marvelous 3 and Southgang, he’s already knocked up a fair amount of accolades. If you take into account he’s written and produced songs for Katy Perry, Avril Lavigne and Weezer, as well as many others, he deserves more recognition (especially from UK audiences).
His 2011 album, ‘The Spade’ comes loaded with the sharp song writing which his fans have come to expect, even though the music lacks the slickness of some of his previous outings. The lead single ‘Summer of 89’ is stupidly catchy. The chorus which comes loaded with gang vocals and a bouncy riff, which alone would be enough to guarantee a standout track. Walker takes things a step farther, however, with amusing tales of the past: he name checks Kiss along the way as well as throwing us the reminder that “nobody knew Bryan Adams wasn’t cool…the TV just told me he was”. [Bryan’s big undoing was also the thing that undoubtedly made him the most money – we probably never need to hear that Robin Hood song ever again. I’ll still proclaim Adams’s 1984 release ‘Reckless’ to be a genre classic, mind.] Also excellent, ‘Everysinglebodyelse’ has a rousing arrangement which has a more seventies glam vibe. Walker’s song writing and arranging is superb, and his band tight – yet never too tight. A strong chorus and arrangement would have carried this track alone, but the addition of a sax (with overtones of Bowie’s ‘Diamond Dogs’) just pushes the track into the realms of potential cult classic.
In a softer mood, ‘Sweethearts’ adopts a Stones-ish swagger, where Walker gets to air a more retro sound to his voice and playing. The bar-room guitars which swamp this track are just lovely, and played against a great lead vocal (and equally great female harmony), this feels like the tune The Quireboys have often strived to record, but haven’t often managed. ‘Synthesizer’ combines a wry humour with some rather excellent rinky-dinky tack piano lines, which sound like a Paul Williams composition for The Muppets (see tracks like ‘Movin’ Right Along’). Huge influences from seventies pop/rock shine through, but those are tempered with gang vocals very much rooted in the 80s. Although Walker’s lead voice is strong, it’s the combination of his lead with a slightly call-and-response backing which lends this tune its bucketful of charm. In an absolute change in style, Walker follows this classy old style pop rock workout with ‘Dublin Crow’ – a country-rock stomper, heavy on the banjos and twangy guitars. All things considered, it manages to sound well-crafted in the musical department but somehow disposable at the same time. It certainly feels like filler compared to gold standard offerings like ‘Summer of 89’.
With a mix of atonal guitars and hefty thumping drum, ‘Bodegas and Blood’ is less accessible than some of the other songs, and doesn’t have a particularly strong chorus to reel in the listener. As such, it sits beside ‘Dublin Crow’ as something which doesn’t quite reach its full potential. That said, a few of the cleaner guitar sounds during an instrumental break are pleasing enough. After a false start, ‘Bullet Belt’ brings the album something far more aggressive, as Walker spits an angry vocal over pounding drums and a hugely fuzzed up bassline. He avoids pushing the track too far into alternative rock territory by employing a bubblegum pop chorus – with a hint of the sixties in places – essentially pulling this tune in two different directions. The music and verses may aspire to the likes of New York Dolls, but the chorus turns that on its head: the songcraft is slicker and generally more accessible than the verses ever would have suggested. For no-nonsense, guitar driven rock/pop in a radio friendly vein, ‘Day Drunk’ has some good moments, chiefly a retro guitar riff and solid bass, while Walker’s vocal maintains a strong presence. Its chorus is something of a weakness, though, since it’s hard to get the most out a one word refrain, no matter how many multi-layered voices it comes loaded with!
Overall, ‘The Spade’s best strength comes from Walker’s ability to make each of the songs his own. While the subgenres of rock and pop on show here will often sound familiar, he rarely imitates any obvious influences. It’s not a patch on 2008’s ‘Sycamore Meadows’ – Walker would have to really be on form to release another album as consistent as that one – but even so, you’ll find more than a handful of top tunes scattered among this album’s eleven cuts.