This review was written in 2004 and originally published on AbsolutePunk.net. It has been very minimally edited before being republished.
When does music stop being just notes and chords and transcend into the physical world as a material life form? It takes unimaginable skill to breathe such life into songs that they take on a living function of their own. Say what you will, but not all music is created to be impossible to decipher: not all guitar parts are written to be the hardest riffs to emulate, not all lyrics are written to conceal hidden agendas and meanings, and not all songs are fashioned to be so enigmatic that they require Harvard level IQs in order to be understood. At what point did this become the level for which we judged music? Where in the evolution of song did we forget about emotion and start judging based upon song titles? Who became king and declared that if the song doesn’t involve an obscure nihilist reference that it is not worthy of our ears? Where is the document that states the rules of music? Because, if inside your head you have such a document by which you judge music: fucking burn it. The first song I ever learned to play on the guitar due to its insane simplicity was “Yesterday” by The Beatles. It is still, in my opinion, one of the greatest songs of all time. Pop music caught a bad wind when “performers” took front stage and “artists” fell to the back. And pop music began a downward ascension amongst some listeners when those who sang the songs were not those who wrote them, when dance numbers became more intricate than the content, and finally, when an image was created and sold before the music.
For the past few years, I have considered pop music dead. Half this hybrid rap-pop shit that gets forced down people’s throats is enough to induce vomiting. It’s to a point where a chorus is shoved through a song to where you don’t even realize there are verses. It’s to a point where the lyrical structure is so dumbed down that everything sounds the same. The same goes for most radio rock, jock-rock, and even “screamo” and “pop-punk” are starting to see these same pitfalls. Where is the creativity? Where is the emotion? Where is the time when you hear a song and sit back and just think, “damn, now that was a good fucking song.” Well, in my opinion – it’s here. New generations of musicians are taking a stand for artistry. The list is limited but growing – the diamonds in the rough are budding into the stars of tomorrow. Those that love music can tell the difference between image and substance. When I listen to a CD it is not just to pass the time, it’s not just to hear a formula and a catchy ditty. I want to be changed. I want to feel something. In the land of the fake, it makes most sense that the true original will be the last standing. Flying under most people’s radar for far too long, I think now is the perfect time for the world to be introduced to a man that is basically a legend in his own right. The man from Marvelous 3, the man who produced Midtown, Avril Lavigne, and many others, and has steadily been building a fan base since his last full-length release. Writing, performing, singing, and producing his brand new album, Letters, Butch Walker has reached a new pinnacle.
Taking a hit from the same pop-emo-vein as The Format, yet mixing so many styles and melodies together as to create a such multifaceted album that it touches on all fashions of music: blues, jazz, pop, punk, emo, classical, and rockabilly to just name a few.
The album begins with a 30 second burst of pure melody that would make The Beach Boys green with envy. This fades to a hushed drum beat and a slow acoustic guitar before breaking into the insanity that is Butch Walker’s vocal prowess. The first thing that I remember thinking as this song hit me was that the storytelling aspect was unmatched, and that this has been a long time coming. While song themes range from death, to love, to angst, to love loss, to commentary, to almost folk like stories; one cannot help but be smitten. As the song ends, a solitary piano and acoustic guitar take over your eardrums. The simplicity of the next song’s story, the absolute brutal honesty of looking at love through the eyes of the receiver of a mixtape brings back many childhood memories. The truth is that when you make someone a mixtape you erect memories to every song. I know that to this day there are songs I put on mixtapes for past loves that if I hear them I well up with emotion and recollection. Songs have a way of becoming mile markers in our lives for both good and bad memories, that’s what this song is about. Those that have ever gone through the painstakingly crazy task of creating the perfect mix tape for that special someone – you know exactly what I am talking about. Of course the music is filled with drums, strings, piano, guitars, and a crisp production job by the Butch himself.
From here we hit the “#1 Summer Jam,” a song which lives up to its name. Have a fun time figuring out how to get the chorus out of your head. With the quick catchy beat still in your head, the song slows down and fades out. The fading effect is used to bring everything down in order for a slow haunting ballad to take its place. Using words to paint a story like only Butch Walker can he croons, “when it comes right down you’re just one of many people that I never really understood, so at last, southern California sun sets like a long goodbye.” It’s easy to get lost in the slow melodic ballad. However, just as you sink into your comfortable couch, or fade back into your car as you drive with the sun beaming down on your face – the final guitar solo begins and fades.
“Uncomfortably Numb,” the next track, contains some of the most potent lines in defining portions of life as any song ever will, “The first time’s the worst time, and then you become so uncomfortably numb …” and, “I wasted a good conversation about music and God on an outta work coked up A&R guy.” With a beat and meter reminiscent of Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now,” the oldies sound is almost revived to a brand new level. Didn’t quite think that was possible.
Again utilizing the fade technique to blend into a slower song, the next track, “Joan,” is done entirely with piano, yes, entirely. First off, I am a huge sucker for piano; I am an even bigger fan when it sounds as beautiful as it does in this song. The song is a story of a girl, and the best way to describe the storyline it is in the opening lines, “Joan moved away to Colorado, said she’d found God and a boyfriend as well, one that won’t hit her, make her feel shallow, and there’s a lot to learn about Joan…” The entire song is written as a story, with the plot slowly unraveling throughout each line. By the end, the emotion quotient is off the chart as the song climaxes and each lyric is sung while Butch tries to catch his breath. You can almost picture him struggling to keep it together as the story reaches its fated conclusion and everything bleeds together with the final keys on the piano. Thankfully the transition is into a beautiful mid-tempo song that showcases how each song in the track listing was placed with intoxicating accuracy. This moves into the closest sounding track to his last album, with hints of rockabilly and choruses of chants, and finger snaps.
The “Best Thing You Never Had” comes next in its splendid ballad form. It’s a song that will become the anthem of everything you wish you could say to the girl you never had. This leads into “Race Cars and Goth Rock,” another blended genre song that has an ever changing chorus line that just works perfectly. Quickly spoken verses over tempered choruses and clever string arrangements leaves us with the last faster paced song on the album as we meld into the final two poignant roller coasters. The final two songs are both slow, and gorgeously mellow. The first being an acoustic love song that opens with, “Well I fumbled for a pencil and my ‘I’m so sorry pad’, and I wrote until I sprained my stupid brain…” as it turns into the kind of song that you should play in your boom box as you hold it high above your head while wearing a trench coat outside of your love’s window. The truth is that this is only a warm up song for your emotions before the final song begins. Another piano based song that follows a storyline, one so inherently sad, yet with an uplifting moral that it may bring you tears. The only way to truly respect the song is to listen to every single word. Try not to feel something. This is where you finally realize the power of music. This is what music is, this is how music should make you feel, and this is what lyrics should do to your brain, what sound should do to your skin, and how the hollow sounds of piano keys can cause goose bumps to fester down your spine. The rest of the so called emo-pop world has absolutely nothing on Butch Walker. This album needs only time before it goes down as one of the best collections of songs ever complied and I think many more will agree than disagree in the end.