Tough luck or charmed life? Butch Walker's first band, a Southern-fried hard rock combo called Southgang, disappeared in a puff of aerosol during the early 1990s transition from hair metal to grunge. Then Walker resurfaced, after grunge had birthed modern rock and MTV's "Alternative Nation," and with the Marvelous 3 he made the most of a few songs that linked Weezer's self-aware guitar swagger with the hooks and horniness of vintage Cheap Trick. But Marv 3 weren't meant to be either despite a hit, looks, and critical acclaim, Walker and his pals were eventually dropped from their label, a likely reason being that they didn't sound enough like Limp Bizkit. It was the early 21st century, and rap-rock ruled the world.
But a funny thing happened on the way back to his hometown of Atlanta. Walker started finding work as a song doctor and producer, working with such pop-minded acts as Avril Lavigne (he co-wrote her still-awesome 2004 hit "My Happy Ending"), Pink, Bowling for Soup and American Hi-Fi, and suddenly he was somebody again. Despite a decade of setbacks, he'd found a way to make the machinery move in his favor. Plus, Walker now had the creative and financial freedom to release two well-received solo albums 2002's Left of Self-Centered and 2004's Letters records that returned over and over to the principal influences in his sound, from the Trick and The Cars to T. Rex and Todd Rundgren.
Today Walker exists in two worlds. He's a well-paid hired gun, having recently signed on to co-write and produce whatever results from the icky four-way marriage of a reality contestant vocalist to Tommy Lee, Jason Newstead and Gilby Clarke on CBS' midsummer laugher Rock Star: Supernova. But he's also released his third solo album The Rise and Fall of Butch Walker and the Let's-Go-Out-Tonites and it represents again his ability to write durable, personal pop songs that also knowingly skewer the glam bubbles of Hollywood, celebrity and the music industry.
This works because Walker is in on the joke. Rise and Fall mirrors his charmed life of the last few years, with such songs as "Bethamphetamine (Pretty Pretty)," "Too Famous to Get Fully Dressed," and "Rich People Die Unhappy" chronicling carrot-and-stick careers, dead-end glamour nights and cocaine habits suppressed with Red Bull abuse. Where Letters had the feel of a drowsy weekend the songwriter album Walker had always dreamed of making Rise and Fall is heady, too fast and probably too slick for its own good, just like most of the budding or fading stars it's written about.
"It's more of a nighttime record," Walker says from a tour stop in Nashville. "I was out last year, doing really well, making some great records with a lot of big artists a nonstop party so there's no way I could write a sincere record [like Letters]. Most of the songs are very much from experiences that I'd written about in journal entries."
Walker doesn't judge anyone on Rise and Fall. He even admits to his role in the game, or at least how it's affected his life the album's quieter moments seem to struggle with the gulf between real relationships and L.A.'s vacuum and that gives lyrics like "Baby's got a purse full of things she calls excuses" and "Another zombie ... 10 dollar drinks are the highlight of his week" more crackle, because we understand that Walker's just describing the show that never ends, compiling his version from crumpled cocktail napkins and late-night studio sessions.
"I love trying to create that imagery in a song," Walker says. "Most are vignettes and stories. I embrace description."
Describing his current tour, Walker hits again on the album's overriding themes. "It's a little bit more of, like, 'What is Butch Walker and the Let's-Go-Out-Tonites?' Well, it's like, go out, get drunk, see your favorite band and maybe do some karaoke before the night's over. There you go, all in one night."
Karaoke? Walker explains: "I'm so tired of burning CDs to play in between bands," he says. "So my background singers are going out and recruiting people from the audience to come up and use the karaoke setup on stage. It's terrible but it's wonderful."
Terrible, but wonderful sort of like Rock Star: Supernova.
Tuesday, Aug. 1, at St. Andrew's Hall, 431 E. Congress St., Detroit; 313-961-8137. With As Fast As and Boys Like Girls.Johnny Loftus is Metro Times music editor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org