You know Chris Butler better than you think you do. The '80s neophytes can forever cherish his songwriting in The Waitresses, whose "I Know What Boys Like", "Christmas Wrapping", and the theme to Square Pegs will be forever emblazoned in the minds of the skinny tie generation for years to come. Music trivia hounds and Guinness World Record know-it-alls could reel off the fact that Butler's 1996 single "The Devil Glitch" does indeed hold the record for "The World's Longest Recorded Pop Song", clocking in at 69 minutes and including over 500 verses. And for those who may not know any of this or were born too late, you might know that Butler has worked with such popular artists as Joan Osborne and Freedy Johnston from time to time. Yes, the man has done a vast array of work, much of it under the knowing eyes of many a music fan.
Music lovers are also wont to throw around the term "genius". Toss it Brian Wilson's way, or Syd Barrett's. These guys always get the nod. Fine by me, but I hesitate to ever label Barrett as anything other than just an odd curio of the psychedelic era, and Wilson sure has a way with a song, but he cranked out more filler post Pet Sounds -- his so-called stroke of "genius" -- than truly memorable songs. No, I'd rather give that badge of honor to Chris Butler. Praising him to his own ears usually winds up in a fit of bashful thank yous and a true sense of modesty, but so be it. I love Butler's work through and through. Why so genius then? Because he write songs for the thinking adult. He has hooks galore, but his wonderful lyrics always open your eyes to something new. They're filled with a really sharp and intelligent sense of humor that no one else is even bothering with these days. Butler has delivered the goods to kids like myself nearly turning 30 who scream at the radio, "Where's the music for me?" Here it is.
After his work with Tin Huey in the '70s and The Waitresses in the '80s, Butler ducked out for a bit, becoming a writer for various publications. When the '90s rolled around, he decided it was time for a comeback. This return would eventually fold over into his latest release, the excellent Museum of Me, a collection of songs made on vintage recording machines. Everything from the Edison wax cylinder to the famous Rolling Stones Mobile Unit is utilized on this album.
But let's backtrack to the mid-'90s. It was then that Butler made a few recordings on the Edison cylinders and an old late '40s/early '50s Webster-Chicago wire recorder. He pressed a limited number of these on vinyl under his own Future Fossil imprint and named them The Wilderness Years. They appeared under volumes one and three and managed to catch the ears of They Might Be Giants' Johns Flansburgh and Linnell. They liked the Edison idea so much that they turned around and recorded "I Can Hear You" on an Edison cylinder and threw it on their Factory Showroom album. In the interim, Butler headed back to the studios and started releasing an amazing array of work, including "The Devil Glitch" single, and the terrific albums I Feel a Bit Normal Today and last year's Easy Life which I decreed the best independently released pop rock album of 2001. It's hard to lose with Butler coaxing you in to his world with songs like "Convenience" that sports such a lines as "Murdered another cigarette in her honor" and the stupefyingly perfect "Hey Stranger" that turns the mundane late night bar conversation into an art form. But this is business as usual for Chris, never content to allow his eclectic muses go unquenched with their heavy thirsts for seeking out the new and uncharted. Even if that means going back old school style and cutting 12 tracks the way your dad, uncle, grandparents and even great-grandparents used to.
Kicking off with the ominously pretty "A Hole in the Sky" ("From a hole in the sky came a horrible sound/ 'Listen to me, listen to me / There are no angels back there / We've been wrong, we've been wrong'") recorded on an Edison cylinder, The Museum of Me throws down into high gear for "The Idiot Trail", recorded on the Rolling Stones Mobile Unit. Think of it as Aaron Copland meeting his rock and roll match. Filled with all sorts of cowboys and Indians western strings that give way to Butler's ever-funky guitar and some terrific drumming, Butler intones "The sign says 'You Are Here' / Gee . . . what a relief" in that patented tongue in cheek Butler fashion that any of his fans will spot ten clicks into the thick flora.
From there, it's anybody's game with Butler ultimately controlling the fates. Thrill to the wild sounds of "The Man in the Razor Suit", recorded on the wire recorder. If anything, They Might Be Giants should still be taking notes from Butler, as this is one of the best songs that they never wrote themselves that kills everything they're currently doing.
Then there's the hilarious drama of "Heartweld" ("You stained the front of your barbed wire dress with your venom / I wore the latest in kiss my ass smiles") that features Butler's regular backing vocal cohort Carla Murray who truly has one of those honey drenched voices that anyone in their right mind would love to have on their album as well. This then spills into the fantastic loose garage rock-a-rama of "Swamp Boy", recorded on a vintage 1946 Brush BK-401 "Soundmirror" recorder using a single crystal mic and paper-backed tape. It's the best song the beloved Nuggets compilations could never have.
The curiosity shop adventure continues in the instrumental "Bad Moon Over Mel Bay" (terrific title) recorded on a Studer J-37 four-track machine with the final mix "slammed" onto an Ampex A300 mono tape recorder. Guest guitarist Ted Lawrence delivers some terrific lounge swamp guitar theatrics here that would make Angelo Badalamenti cry for his mother. And all this is just the first half of the album!
The second half continues to wind its way amongst the vintage machines, from more wax cylinder recordings (the funky "Davy's Sister's Home From College" that also wound up on Easy Life in a modern studio take) to a TASCAM 244 Porta-Studio cassette recording "Power") to even a newly cut vinyl 45 rpm record made on a Neumann VMS62 Special Lathe. However, my vote for best song on the album goes to the smile inducing and hilarious "Thinking About Them Girls" a "mixed media" recording in which Butler transforms himself into one of those old '20s crooners while his buddies sing the choruses at him. A kind of classic call and response track that wears the vintage on its sleeves proudly. After this closing number, there are a selection of various bonus tracks that are also worth delving into ranging from different mixes of the album's songs to strange conversations of true vintage nature captured on a wire that Butler found at a flea market for his recorder that dates from the Korean War era and features various conversational snippets from a northeastern Ohio family. More strange stuff that will surely lure you in even deeper.
Some might ask who Butler could possibly be recording this for, as who would want to listen to new songs recorded on old wire recorders and wax cylinders? But that's not the point. The point is that The Museum Of Me is a fantastic and completely enjoyable trip through time. After all, this really was the stuff that everyone's favorite tunes were recorded on through the decades. It's a real achievement for Butler who has worked on this project for a number of years and the payoff in immeasurable. Yet the heart of the project is still Butler's songs that sparkle and pop with a brilliance untouched by other artists. So if you must, rush to Chris Butler's website, check out everything he has there, including the dandy Kilopop! Collection Un Petit Gouter, a compilation of the best tracks of one of Europe's best bands ever that never got a break in the States. Thrill to Easy Life, I Feel a Bit Normal Today, "The Devil Glitch", and yes, The Museum of Me. You won't find a more original recording out this year, I guarantee it.