In the years that followed the dissolution of the Marvelous 3, a 1990s one-hit wonder power-pop trio fronted by Butch Walker, Butch would often remark that his band was “15 years too late and five years too early.” After all, Walker and his bandmates—bassist Jayce Fincher and a drummer who was only ever known as “Slug” in the album liner notes (his real name is Doug Mitchell)—didn’t really fit in with the broody nineties crowd. There’s not a single iota of grunge in any of the three records Walker and the rest of the Marvelous 3 ever produced, nor is there anything akin to the boy-band/pop-princess radio fodder that was poised to take over the world as the decade and the millennium ground to a close. Instead, the guys in the Marvelous 3 were disciples of eighties hair metal and trashy pop-rock songs, with a fair amount of classic glam and singer/songwriter mentality thrown in for good measure. Those influences probably meant the band was straight fucked from the moment they signed with Elektra Records, a label that became known for screwing over similarly-minded pop-rock acts (Third Eye Blind and Nada Surf, for example) before they ran out of money and went bust in the face of the Napster revolution. But for a few years at least, the Marvelous 3 got to act like rock stars, and in the process, they produced three of the finest power pop records of the past 20 years. 1997’s Math and Other Problems was the first.
For the record, Math and Other Problems was not an Elektra release. This album comes from before the band had captured enough mainstream attention to get signed, and that means that it’s the rawest, weirdest, quirkiest album that Walker has ever made. Not only was the record’s primary influence a guy that most born-and-raised nineties babies probably wouldn’t hear about for another five years, at least—Elvis Costello, one of Walker’s foremost idols—the songs boasted bizarre, tongue-in-cheek lyrics that weren’t always easy to get a handle on.
Of course, the hooks were there: this wouldn’t be a Butch Walker album without a mountain of catchy choruses and hummable vocal lines. But they were bundled with the kind of double-take lyrics that made you wonder whether or not the band was playing games. “Come on baby eat my heart,” Walker belts on “Appetite,” the Cheap Trick-ish opening track. And on “Katrina,” the album’s freak-rock finale, Butch weaves a tale about a lesbian stalker who covers his science project in glue and envisions him as “the guy who always gets shot in every movie you see.” By the time the song reaches its spoken-word climax, an anecdote about a 400-pound Jabba-the-Hutt look-alike with Katrina’s face tattooed on the side of her neck, the album has officially descended into WTF territory.
Math and Other Problems is very obviously the portrait of a band (and a songwriter) in its infancy. While the songwriting on the whole is very good, Butch hadn’t really found his voice yet on this record, and as a result, the project ends up sounding more imitative than any of his other work. Costello is definitely the main template, as Butch’s voice wobbles and shakes on songs like “Cars Collide,” “Make Up,” and especially on the rapidfire “In the Beginning of Relationships,” in a manner that more recent albums would indicate was not so natural for him. Those songs are fine, as are retro power-pop boppers like “I Wanna Go to the Sun” and “Bottle Rocket”—it’s interesting to recall that the closest anyone else came to doing this sound and actually making it popular in the nineties was Smash Mouth with their first record—but the finest material is the stuff that shows where Walker would go as a songwriter in the coming years.
The definitive track is “Valium,” a drug-induced break-up anthem with shades of the stalkerish sensibility Butch would adopt years later for “Mixtape.” Where much of Math and Other Problems is about paying homage to Walker’s influences, “Valium” is a pristine 4-minute pop song that could come from no one other than Butch himself. From the blissful pop chorus to the 1980s hair metal guitar solo and the power-pop ready back-up vocals, “Valium” could fit snugly onto any Butch Walker album and into any Butch Walker concert setlist without sounding out of place. It’s one of his best songs, and it’s the only thing here that earns that designation.
The other highlight is “The Last Sleep,” which, though it sounds miles better in stripped-down acoustic format, more or less showed the balladic direction that Butch would take later on in his career. The soaring chorus and the punchy bridge show the unimpeachable rock ‘n’ roll frontman that Walker would become once he started singing with his own voice, but the real revelation is the lyrics, which strike a resonant and personal chord that rings loud and powerful amidst a record full of sarcastic and cynical one-liners. Fans wondering where the introspective break-up balladry of Walker’s solo albums come from need only look back at “The Last Sleep” to see the template. This was a song about a guy with his heart split open for all to see, and Walker’s confessional vocal carried the burden with ease. The tempo may be jarringly accelerated to fit the power pop sheen of the rest of the disc, but it’s still not hard to see the song as the odd ball of the set.
Math and Other Problems is not, by any stretch of the imagination, Butch Walker’s best record. The recording occasionally sounds sloppy (Butch recorded and produced the thing on a pre-historic Pro Tools rig in his parents garage), the songs and performances are imitative (and sometimes even parodic), and Walker hadn’t yet found the elements that made him so special as both a singer and a songwriter. But despite its flaws, Math and Other Problems is a lovable and idiosyncratic record, one that makes up for its lack of uniform direction and its pastiche of influences by cranking up the energy and heart to 11 and charging forward with all the reckless momentum that most radio rock acts today haven’t got a clue of how to maintain. It’s the weakest album Walker has ever made as the sole songwriter, but as a genesis rock of sorts for the guy who would become one of the biggest songwriters and producers in pop music, it’s still an essential and eye-opening listen.