CD Review: Butch Walker “Sycamore Meadows”

You never know what to expect from Butch Walker these days. Since the demise of one of the greatest modern rock bands, The Marvelous 3, his solo work has been considerably diverse. Each record is consistent in and of itself, but not amongst the others. Each explores a different stratum of the rock genre, some working better than others. His first solo effort, “Left of Self-Centered” was a brilliant continuation of the glorious and bombastic power pop rock that the Marv 3 perfected. “Letters” was strikingly subdued as Walker strutted into rather banal singer/songwriter territory. “Rise and Fall…” was his tribute to 70s glam rock, but it was so unmelodious and flat that I could not get rid of it fast enough.

“Sycamore Meadows” strikes me as a return to the ground he broke in “Letters”, but with a better sense of hook and melody, and some of the best lyrics to have gushed out of his pen. The record feels more organic and personal than anything he’s done, with lots of acoustic guitar supplemented with horns, oboes, and harp, resulting in a very airy production. The big bold guitars are largely absent and most of the tunes are mid-tempo or slow. As always, his voice is fantastic, but he generally doesn’t go out of his way to give you chills like you know that he can. So fans hoping for a full-fledged return to his Marv 3 or “Self-Centered” days are going to be disappointed. Personally, I would have preferred Butch to repeat history in that way, but hey – he’s an artist, he’s evolving, and he’s doing his own thing…that is rock and roll.

The first single and lead off track, “The Weight of Her” is an upbeat acoustic-based rocker that should please Walker fans of all stripes, especially if they also like Tom Petty. “Here Comes The…” is the first of several ballads, and this one works great with its bouncy acoustic strum and engaging harmonies. The horn-laced “Ponce de Leon Ave” is very catchy, bright, and fun. We’re back to ballads with “Ships in A Bottle”, but it is another hit out of the park for Walker, with emotive lyrics, gentle horns, and a spine tingling vocal. While I am not crazy about the tune “Passed Your Place…”, it does exemplify some of his lyrical prowess and insight. Walker laments the loss of a girl he let get away, “You can’t trust a man – it’s a species that captures things just to let them go”. Butch Walker does a little Bob Dylan on “A Song for the Metalheads”, but the addition of brass and xylophone over the frantic strumming on “Closer to the Truth and Further From the Sky” make for a more entertaining tune. A final highlight lurks toward the end of the disc…the sparse piano ballad “ATL” ranks as one of his best – it left me speechless, like something Bernie Taupin and Elton John would have done in their 70s hey day.

The verdict: “Sycamore Meadows” is emerging as my second favorite Butch Walker solo record (second to his debut). What is interesting is that this release and his debut are at such opposite ends of the spectrum that they sound like two completely different musicians – a reflection of a versatile and multi-talented artist.

Butch Walker on MySpace. Official site.