Butch Walker - Sycamore Meadows
Record Label: Original Signal/R.E.D. Distribution
Release Date: November 11, 2008
For every big city, there is nearly always a voice present to capture its wide-eyed wonderment, its celebratory cause and the jubilant bark of street-side pencil-pushers simply working for the weekend (there’s my Loverboy reference – count it!).
New Jersey has the almighty Bruce Springsteen; Greenwich Village had the vivacious purr of Bob Dylan; even San Francisco had the psychedelic chants of Jerry Garcia. If every city has its own form of a curbside prophet, then Atlanta has Butch Walker to graciously warm their ears with songs that identify the little guy from Cartersville and star-struck optimist burnt out from vapid Hollywood fashionistas in all of us.
Sycamore Meadows is Walker’s fourth official solo release, and the care & effort put into its conception is devastatingly evident. Not to say it is a bad thing, because in all essence, this album chronicles an aspect of honesty not many musicians in the pop world dare to reveal. “Going Back/Going Home” has a breakdown of Walker’s own life until now that’s a little bit country and a little bit hip-hop. Coming from the guy who has co-written hits for Avril Lavigne, Pink and Lindsey Lohan, it’s perplexing how his own personal genius hasn’t been demonstrated as effectively there as it does on his own work, dropping the glossy production for a down-to-earth sound.
Quiet and domineering in a way only a master of his work can be, the album may not stack up to 2004’s Letters in terms of melodic quality, however the personal lashings that flow from Walker’s cup are exhibited in beautiful form on “ATL,” a ballad only Walker could have written ("Let your sweaty embrace open wide / ‘Cause Atlanta, I’m suffocating like some people do / and I need all your air to survive"). Like the richly satisfying hidden track from Letters, “Stateline,” the song is exceptionally written, performed and another straw in the hat for Walker, who must save the best parts for himself.
“The Weight of Her” and “Ponce De Leon Ave.” are two of the disc’s more raucous numbers, picking up a bit of an E Street vibe when rolling through the circus of instruments weaving in and out of each song. There are parallels Walker holds with Springsteen in terms of career trajectory, even if he isn’t nearly as mainstream as Springsteen has remained (influence, however, is a much different story). Both artists have seemingly ditched (for lack of a better word) their rock-heavy material for more intimate recordings & songs that tell stories about people and their own hometowns, love lives, etc. Alternating between rambunctious party-starters and eloquent ballads glancing back on life lost, it might be slightly presumptuous to say that Walker could very well be this generation’s Boss. With gentle yet haunting numbers like “Vessels” and mid-tempo rhythms such as “Ships in a Bottle,” there’s no denying the effect Walker can have on the senses, tingling every nerve with aggressive lyrical integrity and soulful vocal touchdowns.
Production-wise, the album is scarcely littered with much more than guitars, bass, drums and piano – it’s a simple orchestration without too much chaos and flooding to drown the listener in sound. The album’s sole intent is to keep it confidential, as a secret between Walker & the listener themselves. “Summer Scarves” and “Here Comes The…” have moments of limp-wristed candor that swerve in directions the other songs avoid, courtesy of technical stoppages such as the oddly-placed bass drum beats. The lyrics are largely scattered with references to the common misogynistic ways musicians tend to experience at one time or another (sex, drugs and rock & roll – a.k.a. the usual), however it’s told through a perspective of Walker to recall what it has made him and where he has wound up today (and the subsequent toll others have paid through similar circumstances). “While a kid in the corner becomes a savant /No one will care till he’s dead,” he croons on “A Song for the Metalheads”. “Or he falls from his grace with it all over the place / and a piece of it stuck in his head.”
Singing about the fake attitude some give off when it comes to a “cool” locale to call your hometown: “Nobody’s really from here, they just all pretend that’s what they’ve been about,” he howls on “The 3 Kids in Brooklyn”. “That one kid left in Atlanta… / Fuck this place, I’m getting out.”
Named after the neighborhood Walker lived & worked in Malibu before his home burned to the ground, Sycamore Meadows translates to an album of shifting one’s individual focus and regaining the strength to live another day without any challenges keeping you sore. It can hurt, you can bleed… but you still remain; you are still alive.
That is Walker’s intent, to describe the triumph of being able to live through the worst and retain the personal rewards that make breathing so easy. Paul Simon once sang, “Every generation sends a hero up the pop charts.” In a way, Walker has already been there through other bands & musicians. For many of us, he is the voice on the top that we need to know music is still alive & well, no matter how long the fire has continued to burn.
What a review! I have been a fan of Butch for over ten years, and he just keeps getting better. His music may shift, his direction may change...but he is still that honest, heartfelt incredible musician that makes amazing music.
Excellent review. Excellent album. Really wish Walker'd get more props for his music. A fact even Entertainment Weekly brought up in their positive review. Glad to know I'm not the only one who feels this way.