A quick Butch Walker history lesson for the uninitiated: he's a prolific producer and songwriter who has worked with Avril Lavigne, Weezer, Dashboard Confessional, Fall Out Boy, Katy Perry, and Pink...and that list is just scratching the surface of his resume. Most notably (for me at least), he's a talented musical artist who plays several instruments and has amassed a (mostly) impressive catalog of recorded work over the past 20+ years as a solo artist, as frontman for 90's alt-rock trio Marvelous 3, and as lead guitarist in Southgang, a cheesy late 80's hair band (hence the "mostly" designation).
I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart, which was written and recorded in five days according to the liner notes, is his fifth solo studio album and though it's an improvement on 2008's disappointing Sycamore Meadows, it's still no match for the strong one-two punch of his first solo discs, 2002's Left Of Self-Centered and 2004's Letters (Walker is like clockwork with the bi-annual album releases...he also dropped The Rise And Fall Of Butch Walker And The Let's-Go-Out-Tonites in 2006). To compare his current work to his earlier music is perhaps unfair, though, as his musical style has matured and grown significantly from the arena rock stylings that mostly inhabited his debut and its follow-up. There's still signs of it there, obviously, but Walker has widened his sonic palette over the past few albums to include more of a country and folk sound, with an additional emphasis on paying musical homage to his favourite 70's artists. That was the most defining thing that was impressed upon me after numerous listens to I Liked It Better..., was just how much further he had waded into the sounds from the 70's that had really begun to emerge on The Rise And Fall... (particularly Ziggy era Bowie). Walker's band, which tends to change names and members quite frequently, is called The Black Widows this time around.
I LIked It Better... kicks off with first single "Trash Day", which is a dead ringer for something Tom Petty would have recorded. Most unusual about the fact that Walker chose such a Petty-sounding song to begin the album is that he did the exact same thing on his previous release with the song "The Weight Of Her", which was almost - almost - a little too close to sounding like Petty for comfort. The fact it was still a great song wiped out any criticisms of lazy songwriting, though. Walker's intent when he treads so close to sounding like someone else is to obviously pay homage, with no basis in anything related to creative bankruptcy. Other examples on this album that do just that are "House Of Cards" (ELO), "She Likes Hair Bands" (Steve Miller and Dr. Hook), and a couple of odes to 50's and 60's Motown ("They Don't Know What We Know" and "Pretty Melody").
Another area in which Walker is stretching out the use of elements he's played with before are with the application of strings and an orchestra (recorded at the famed Abbey Road Studios), which permeate the sound throughout I Liked It Better..., to its benefit. "Pretty Melody" and "House Of Cards" are awash in them, while the stripped down "Don't You Think Someone Should Take You Home" gets a similarly strong effect from just a single violin and a small horn section that accompanies the bass, acoustic guitar, and a spare percussion section. Walker's production and professional songwriting expertise naturally serve him well as a recording artist and he can get memorable results with either a throw-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach that takes the listener to headphone heaven, or gutting everything until it's just his own voice with an acoustic guitar, as he does on "Be Good Until Then".
Lyrically, Walker doesn't stray far from the main themes he's covered in the past: Hollywood excess, suburban life, sexual frustration, and pursuing women, along with at least one reference to his Georgia southern roots. Normally, I shy away from artists that inject too much humour into their lyrics (like Barenaked Ladies), but Walker's talent for clever, humourous wordplay is one of his strengths. The best example of it this time around is on the stoned-out "She Likes Hair Bands", including a reference to his own dubious hair band past.
Walker's prolific producing and songwriting career clearly pays his bills, as the following for his own music is fairly tiny. The lack of pressure to ring up significant sales numbers allows him an artistic freedom that really translates through his albums, informing it with a looseness and convivial quality that is altogether lacking with most music you hear these days.
Highlights: "Pretty Melody", "Don't You Think Someone Should Take You Home", "Stripped Down Version", "Be Good Until Then"
Lowlights: "Canadian Ten", "Days/Months/Years", "House Of Cards"
I also highly recommend Walker's recent cover of Taylor Swift's "You Belong With Me" (available at iTunes as a single). His charmingly ramshackle arrangement of it, anchored by a mandolin and banjo, is actually more country sounding than Swift's (who, let's face it, is way more of a pop artist than a country artist). Interestingly, when Swift heard his version she invited Walker to perform with her at the most recent Grammy Awards, where she gave a typically tone deaf vocal performance.