Band names can be a tricky thing. It’s difficult to find a band name that’s good as well as one that belies the music you play. A rather unfortunate name, the Buttless Chaps is a moniker that is more befitting a flamboyantly gay outfit playing naughty country tunes. However, if you can get past the band name, and slip the disc into your player, you will be in for a treat. Love This Time, the Buttless Chaps‘ fourth full length disc, is a heady mix of alt-country, new wave, and shimmery Elephant 6-esque pop. While not as consistently great as I kept hoping it would be, Love This Time is one of the most interesting exercises in alt-country to hit record stores since Wilco’s visionary Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Using the same wide open spaces as Wilco’s landmark album, the Buttless Chaps opt for a more accessible sound, filling their simple country songs with synths, pianos, and soaring trumpets. Referencing equal doses of Hank Williams, Don Gibson, Human League, and Kraftwerk, the result is album that is best described as futuristic nostalgia.
Juggling so many influences can be a difficult task. If done poorly, an album can sound scattered and haphazard. Though they shift gears often, the overall sound on Love This Time is mostly unified, tied together by the distinctive baritone vocals of lead singer Morgan McDonald.
Taking an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach, the album changes directions often, and immediately. The triumphant, Beulah-like “18 Rabbits” kicks things off, driven by a playful trumpet line. The title track follows, a mostly instrumental number that later finds Radiogram vocalist Ida Nilsen harmonizing with a three-chord vocoder. Yes, vocoder. Sounding like an outtake from Trans Am’s Futureworld, “Love This Time” can be easily viewed as the Buttless Chaps’ statement of intent. Clearly, they are refusing to be contained by any clichés the alt-country tag brings with it, and willing to explore any ideas that come to them.
“Babbles” and “Lonely Hearts” find the band back in traditional country territory, with the latter climaxing with operatic vocals that would make Rufus Wainwright proud. The Buttless Chaps’ endless need for reinvention doesn’t always serve them well. The middle of the disc is bogged down by two tracks that are poorly saddled with overt nods to the ’80s. “Fresh Horses” finds violins trying desperately to compete with a tacky synth line and trying desperately to evoke images of Kraftwerk, “Shuttle Systems” collapses under a simple, unengaging keyboard line.
“Banjee” and “Plain Wrench” are two solid tracks that find the group sticking closely to the familiar sounds of alt-country and indie-pop, before the embarassing and obvious “Numan”. While I commend the Buttless Chaps for fully exploring the music that interests them, “Numan” finds the band turning their inspiration into irony, and it’s unfortunate, as it also makes the listener reconsider the entire record. Is this all an elaborate joke or is this track an anomaly? I’ll give the Buttless Chaps the benefit of the doubt and vote for the latter. I guess I was right, as the final two tracks, “Kinda Empty” and “Brotherhood”, are the perfect synthesis of the Buttless Chaps’ influences, in equal turns reminiscent of Hank Williams, Apples in Stereo, and the Black Heart Procession.
The Buttless Chaps are definitely offering something new for the alt-country scene, and Love This Time, though a scattered success, is worth a listen for anyone looking for something different in their country music. If the Buttless Chaps can hone their influences into a singular vision, it is only a matter of time before they release a truly great album. Too bad about the band name, though….