Graded on a Curve:
Chris Butler,
Got It Togehter!

No, we’re not starting out 2019 with a whopper of a typo, as the new CD from veteran Ohio multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Chris Butler is spelled that way on purpose. It’s the second full-length in two years (after a gap of twelve) from the former member of Tin Huey and The Waitresses, finding him in strong form with a batch of songs that underscore his art-poppy new wavy roots, and with a high quotient of guitar helping to place the set’s contents into the positive column. Got It Togehter! is out now through Future Fossil Music with distribution through Smog Veil Records.

In addition to the abovementioned groups and a stint in the noteworthy Ohio outfit The Numbers Band, Chris Butler has extensive and varied credits as a producer, amongst them Dutch punkers Sort Sol, Television guitarist Richard Lloyd, alternative singer-songwriter Freedy Johnston, and the early recordings of ’90s pop radio staple Joan Osborne.

Alongside this disc, Butler released Songs for Unsung Holidays last year, a collaboration with the recently deceased saxophonist Ralph Carney. Amongst other qualities, it was a fun record, and so’s this one, which is in contrast to 2016’s Easy Life, a release that’s subtitled The Bohemian Dream & American Nightmare of Kent State 1970. An attendee of the college, Butler witnessed the shooting of his fellow student protesters on campus that year. However, on this new one the humorous threads avoid the zany and any quirkiness is largely kept in check.

Also contrasting with Easy Life, everything on Got It Togehter! (with a few exceptions late in the program) was recorded by Butler himself, and while this approach is occasionally discernible, and in fact quickly so on opener “Physics,” the gist of the record generally cooks like a band effort. This is in part due to the largeness of the guitar presence, which gnaws and burns nicely in “Physics” while also aiding in the song’s somewhat warped sense of melody (in tandem with a nifty maneuver via Farfisa keyboard).

The next cut is “Songs for Guys,” an imaginary crush song relating to a female bass player which works through a combination of curiosity and detachment that sidesteps the creepy, instead offering more guitar bigness coupled with grand rock swoops and additional off-kilter keyboard action (this time from a Stylophone 250). “New Enemy” essentially continues this recipe but a tad more forthrightly as a rock stomper; here, the main additive of unusualness is Butler’s snidely intelligent and decidedly post-new wave vocals.

Think new wave of a college town bar band-ish stripe, which thrived in Butler’s home state of Ohio. But “Summer Money” underscores that the man and his contemporaries were often seduced by smart ’60s-’70s pop and in turn helped to extend its possibilities into the ’80s and beyond; the track delivers Got It Togehter! one of its highlights. With Farfisa in a more recognizable register (and some Theremin-like passages), “Late for Work” returns to rocking directness, and if I have a quibble, it’s in how the lyrics are a mite too wordy and their delivery a smidge too up front.

“Dromomania (Wind in My Shoes)” places the thought gush in melodic territory enhanced with beaucoup slide guitar grind, a gesture that’s much appreciated. It’s followed by “Mommy Glow,” which explores Butler’s aversion to parenthood and needling of the sanctity of motherhood. Depending on one’s viewpoint on the breeding and raising of tikes, it has the potential to maybe become uncomfortable, but hey, at least there’s some Joe Meek-like keyboard throughout to sweeten the pill (as a non-child-rearer, it went down easy enough for me).

It’s “Nicotine Weather” that hits the apex of syllabic outpouring, and as an unashamedly literate rant on the difficulties of quitting smoking in a fucked-up world, it succeeds like gangbusters. “Awake” strips things back to just voice and hard-strummed guitar to underline Butler’s singer-songwriter abilities pretty well. “Never Been Old Before” returns to a heavier rock disposition and is probably my least favorite song on the disc, mainly due to song structure that lingers on the border of bombastic.

Plus, it brings post-Mothers Zappa to mind, which bluntly doesn’t thrill me either, though don’t get the impression Butler’s faltered into the sophomoric or scatological. No, it’s just that like ol’ Frank, he holds some definite opinions and has no problem sharing them. It’s a state of existence that’s personally relatable, so I shan’t complain too strongly.

In a savvy touch, “Bitch Box” finds Butler reflecting with self-awareness (and some blues-rock licks) upon his propensity to share beliefs and criticisms, which leads into the horn-infused high note “Better Than I Ever Was,” a track somewhat reminiscent of early solo Lou Reed if he’d just said screw it and went for the big brass pop ring around ’75 or so, and with a nifty added strain of rockin’-soul nostalgia.

This ends the album proper, but there are four bonus demos, including a swell non-horn spiked (and rockin’-soul minimizing) version of “Better Than I Ever Was.” It augments the Reed vibe with a late ’70s power pop angle crossed with a hint of Graham Parker and/ or Nick Lowe if they had instead been heartland bar rockers. That means thematic unity baby, and there’s even a solo reminding me of Television. The other extras are snappy, especially “Touch of Gray” (not a Dead cover, but instead a lightly psych-folky strum pop nugget), though the concluding track does deserve special mention.

Described as a “just-for-fun” early ’90s stab at formulating a “big, synth-laced hit single,” the cut succeeds without a hitch (well, except for the actual hit part), and if heard devoid of self-commentary, the post-St. Elmo’s Fire John Parr-isms would’ve likely have inspired me to bark out “what the fuck is this?” or something similar. But with context, “Curious Girls” brings a smile to my face and makes me downright thankful that Chris Butler chose the path that led to the existence of Got It Togehter!


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