In the first installment of Butch Walker Week, I wrote that Math and Other Problems, the debut album from Walker’s 1990s power pop trio, the Marvelous 3, felt like a half-formed statement from a band that was still very indebted to their influences. On Hey! Album, the group’s sophomore-record-turned-major-label-debut, the leap forward is almost remarkable. Don’t get me wrong, Walker and company don’t try that many new things here: it’s still a slick, catchy album full of punchy power pop songs and with a foot planted firmly in 1980s alternative rock. But instead of spending the whole record imitating his influences, Walker establishes himself here as full-throated rock ‘n’ roll frontman, with the charisma, the passion, and the songwriting ability to go the whole nine yards. Naturally, his band follows suit.
The version of Hey! Album that most Marvelous 3 fans know—the one with a bed on the cover—was released by Elektra Records in late 1998, but the album wasn’t originally conceived as a major label hit parade. Instead, Walker, Jayce, and Slug recorded Hey! Album in the same manner as their previous album (on Walker’s old Pro Tools rig) and released the songs independently earlier in the year. It wasn’t until one of those songs, a pop-rock gem titled “Freak of the Week,” began to collect radio play that the major labels came calling. With radio stations in the band’s native Atlanta putting the song into regular rotation and increasingly large audiences showing up at the band’s hometown shows, it was only a matter of time before Walker and his two best friends were roped into the major label system. “Freak of the Week” was already a minor hit, an almost guaranteed success in the hands of the correct label, and with the right levels of promotion, there was no reason that several other songs off the uniformly hook-laden Hey! Album couldn’t crack the charts as well. Right? Well, maybe not.
Signed by Elektra Records mid-1998, the Marvelous 3 were rapidly corralled into the nonsense of the 1990s major label scene. Hey! Album was remixed, edited, and covered in an appropriate level of radio rock sheen. Several songs from the independent version remained on the cutting room floor (gems like “Fastboat” and “I Just Wanna Go Home”) while another, the propulsive “Cold As Hell,” was put on hold for the band’s next record. Meanwhile, Elektra went about positioning “Freak of the Week” as a flagship first single (which it was) and building the band up into an outfit of hitmakers (which they never would be). “Freak” was a minor hit, landing at number 5 on Billboard’s modern rock chart. In most circles, the song was and is inconsequential, a forgotten gem from a band of 1990s also-rans. For Butch Walker and the guys in the Marvelous 3, it was the cause of a lifelong designation of “one hit wonder.”
Undoubtedly, Hey! Album’s lack of holdover success pissed Elektra off, so much that the label more or less derailed the career of the Marvelous 3 a few years later, but if the band guys were bothered by the disappointing radio reception, they certainly didn’t let on at the time. Walker and company spent the months and years following the release of Hey! Album on the road, occupying both opening and headlining slots, playing their songs to loud and appreciative crowds, and building a fiercely passionate following along the way. They may not have been a match with what was going on with mainstream radio at the end of the millennium—take a look at the number 1 singles from 1998 and 1999 and you will see precisely why Marvelous 3 never stood a chance—but their songs were catchy as candy and their live show was one of the highest-energy exports in rock music. In other words, these guys would have been just fine if their label hadn’t gotten in the way. But that’s a story for tomorrow.
Going back to Hey! Album today, it’s almost remarkable how fresh everything sounds, from the sing-along hooks of “Until You See” and “Write it on Your Hand” to the seriously weird, hysterically funny spoken-word monologue that concludes album closer “Lemonade.” Where Math and Other Problems only had one or two songs that I would consider to be among Walker’s best, Hey! Album is more or less chock full of them. Opener “You’re So Yesterday” storms out of the gate with a patent, snarling Butch Walker verse and an earworm chorus (not to mention a “Sweet Caroline” snippet toward the end of the song), while “Indie Queen” showed just how adept Walker was at creating pristine moments of pop perfection, falsetto vocals and all. “Vampires in Love” plays around with dumb puns (“And now I know that I suck at this, and you suck at it too/And now we’re nothing more than vampires in love,” goes the pre-chorus) and sounds a little too on-the-nose today, in the age of Twilight, but also still manages too be both endearing and innately hummable. “Every Monday” remains one of the few Marvelous 3 songs Butch will revisit live, a rousing slice of power pop with some of Walker’s most unforgettable lyrics (“I called up Marie, she have sex for free/But for 10 bucks an hour she’d listen to me”). And the cigarette-lighter anthem that is “Let Me Go” is the album’s peak, a realization of the balladic prowess that Butch only hinted at with “The Last Sleep” on the first record.
In their brief write-up for Hey! Album, All Music Guide called the record “a near-perfect combination of angst and bliss,” referring to the fact that, while these songs are loaded with memorable hooks and supremely melodic verses, the lyrics are all about break-ups, bad relationships, drinking binges at the bar, and cancelled TV shows. Since this album, Butch has thrived time and time again on songs that blend perfect pop sensibility with emotional intensity. In fact, from the relationship-breakdown-in-Los-Angeles that was 2004’s Letters,to the ode for the things he lost in a wildfire on 2008’s Sycamore Meadows, Walker has largely defined his career on a dichotomy of pop sheen and confessional songwriting. With the upcoming Peachtree Battle EP and the recent passing of his father, it looks like Butch is poised to return to that sort of emotional touchstone once more, making Marvelous 3’s Hey! Album that much more pivotal as a piece of his history. Math and Other Problems may have broken the ice, but this was the true debut because it planted the seeds for the songwriter that Walker would become.