Some say if you wait long enough, then everything old is new again. I say, when something as good as Napalm Springs updates several decades’ worth of old sounds into something exciting and new, forget about the clock and just lose yourself in the timeless fun of the music. While this CD is a dream to listen to, it’s also an A&R Department’s nightmare, eclectically transcending styles across the board and avoiding easy description. Each of these 14 tracks has its own little genetic musical DNA, and I’ll try to map at least some of them for you to give an approximate idea of what’s in store.
This is an amalgam of contemporary rock with retro flavors, tunes that provide a healthy dose of Brit-rock and anthem-rock and lyrics that contemplate love and life and the human condition in songs that invite you to sing along. Much like the music, Butterfly Jones itself combines both new and old. While a new entity in name, in actuality Butterfly Jones is 2/3 of the old Los Angeles-based band Dada (they had four critically-acclaimed CDs back in the ’90s, developed a devout fan following and scored some radio play with an early single “Dizz Knee Land”). So while it’s a debut album, it’s also a somewhat veteran effort.
As the largest creative force behind Dada, you often got the sense of Michael Gurley’s general love of music. His disciplined structured songwriting springs forth from a lifetime of musical influences, creating a harmony between past and present and future. Following Dada’s last release (1998), Michael Gurley teamed with friend and co-producer Scott Gordon (Alanis Morissette, Ringo Starr, Aerosmith) to record a few new songs. Manager Michael Scurlock was so impressed; he took the songs to Vanguard Records, who eagerly signed up for the project, offering multi-instrumentalist Gurley unusual trust and creative freedom.
That trust has been amply rewarded with a fine collection, perhaps Gurley’s best ever. This “soulful neo-psychedelia” (as the label describes it) is chock full of rich harmonies, classic pop song structure, great guitar licks as needed and a host of wonderful musical accents and contributions. “We weren’t writing these songs to get signed,” Gurley explains. “There weren’t any egos involved at all in the making of this album. It was just a bunch of friends making a record and having a blast”.
This labor of love features Michael Gurley at the helm, singing, often backing himself up vocally as well, and wowing you with some tasty guitar work. Phil Leavitt, his drummer for 11 years, is back as well. Joie Calio, former Dada bassist, only makes a small appearance doing backup vocals on one track (“Sophie”). Mark Harris, returning from touring with Venice, takes the majority of bass duties here, and a number of guests make nice contributions as well. The sound often is reminiscent of Dada (how could it not be?), but this is something different. It’s as if the best of Dada (clever lyrics, catchy songs) has been transformed into something new and definitely pop inspired.
And now, the music: be sure to wear headphones to get the maximum effect from the CD’s production values, where subtle mixing and layered instruments provide treats galore for the careful listener. The opening title track “Napalm Springs” shows right from the get-go Gurley’s abilities to serve up a catchy old-fashioned rocker, this one with definite Led Zeppelin touches along with a big old chunky guitar solo that rips right through the middle of the song. Lyrically, it’s a sarcastic twist on a “can-do” attitude: “If love don’t tear me apart / If I’m not feeling quite enough pain / If love don’t tear me apart / I’ll do it myself”. This track features samples and keyboards from guest Mark de Gli Antoni of Soul Coughing fame.
“Suicide Bridge” shifts gears with its baroque strings (violins, viola and cello) and slower tempo, telling all about how suddenly things can change in life and matters of the heart: “In an instance everything can turn around / In an instance everything is lost and all is found / Your winds of change have come to blow my mind away / Everything about you feels so fine”. Once again, impressive guitar work highlights another finely produced track.
The chosen single (and that must have been a difficult choice – not a bad song in the lot) is the more contemporary sounding “Anywhere But Now”. Inspired by when a friend of Gurley’s got dumped by his girlfriend, this rhythmic anthem of a song captures that universal pain and realization: “Anywhere but now / anywhere but in my room alone / like a jerk waiting by the phone” or more poetically “Anywhere but stuck inside my head, drowning in my bed/ Milking teardrops from your sacred cow”.
One of my favorites is the bluesy rocker “Alright”, which features backing vocals from world champion surfer Kelly Slater. This is the kind of multi-layered old-fashioned hard rocker that builds gradually, a type of song rarely written these days. It tells a story of suicidal bleakness and desperation battled by a chorus of optimism and hope. A person in trouble calls a friend to come over: “He was taking a bath in his best green suit / buzzin’ like a wet grenade / he was tryin’ to wash away his dirty blues / with some bubbles and a razor blade”. Yet, true to the inherent optimism found on much of this album, we are reminded ultimately that: “It’s alright, it’s okay / don’t you know tomorrow’s another day / don’t look now here comes the dawn / baby sometimes you just gotta hang on”.
My bet for follow-up single would be the infectious “Are We in Love Again”, which deals with confusion of on-again off-again amour. In the manner of classic Dada (say “Bob The Drummer”), clever lyrics contribute to the upbeat keyboards: “So are we in love again / is it off is it on / are we going, am I gone / are we in love again / is it wrong is it real / baby tell me what you feel and I will pretend / that you meant what you said and we’ll jump back into bed / I don’t want it to end / so are we in love again”.
While Gurley can rock out, he also can fashion a ballad with the best. “Wonder” is a soft-spoken song of quiet introspection, employing a beautiful string arrangement, while “Sophie” features tabla drums and a mellotron in its pleading treatise to an oft-absent object of desire. It’s the perfect little touches that endear with repeated listens, like the playfully expressive guitar fills on “It’s Cool Dude” or the octave-apart vocals on “Blue Roses” (note how the octave rises in successive verses). “Dreamtime” can hold its own with any Sugar Ray radio hit and “Please” has a little Harry Nilsson vibe to it.
For those still stuck in the 1960s, Gurley gives you plenty here. “When People Are Mean” opens with a sort of “California Dreamin” guitar line, then launches into soft vocals akin to The Four Freshman or The Letterman of yesteryear. The lyrics are so obvious I assume they aren’t to be taken at face value. Still, the harmonies are pleasant and the bass oboe accompaniment is lovely. Further references are at play with “Sunshine And Ecstasy”, which opens with the type of bah-bah-bah harmonies of The Association or The Turtles, then spins into a more contemporary verse, extolling the mantra: “Sunshine and ecstasy, Peace, Love Sex and Be Free”. This is one that appeals to the hippie in us all, and features a wicked Who-like middle bridge.
Another favorite cut is “The Systematic Dumbing Down of Terry Constance Jones”, where vocals are shared with Julie Ritter of Mary’s Danish, as Gurley opens with a female Bob Dylan turn (Roberta Dylan?). Never before has a song captured so well the way our society provides shallow image-driven role models for young women: “It’s the systematic dumbing down of Terry Constance Jones, she used to be a surgeon, now she operates the phones / With all her magazines and TV queens, she still feels so alone”. You get more lyrics than you can wrap a tongue around, taking careful verbal aim and sarcastically hitting the target dead on.
Overall, Napalm Springs is a mix of genuine optimistic hope infused with enough modern cynicism to make it palatable. Lyrically, it goes from insightful to clever to tongue-in-cheek droll and back again. Musically, it’s homage to a past when strong well-crafted songs could be found playing on radios everywhere. Fourteen consistently good and diverse tracks comprise the wings that set Butterfly Jones maiden flight into motion. Listeners will sing along, hum tunes and will discover more hooks than in a tackle box and a meat locker combined. This is the kind of remarkable CD that renews one’s faith in modern pop music (rock and roll ain’t dead yet) and make you smile. When these troubled times keep you close to home, I heartily recommend a musical trip to Napalm Springs. Bring your headphones; it might just be the best vacation yet.