Candy Butchers: Play with Your Head

Candy Butchers
Play with Your Head

True confession: at first listen, I was a little unsure about this new release. While a few songs were instantly accessible, this was a very different kind of song collection than that found on 1999’s Falling into Place. Those songs were by and large gems of the three-minute pop/rock variety. Here there is greater diversity, more ballads, and a smattering of eclectic moods and sounds captured within songs. Of course, what I didn’t realize then was that these songs are like rare flowers, they bloom with a little time and care into the most beautiful things. How apt then that this is a spring release.

What’s missing in so much of modern music is the type of craftsmanship that Mike Viola (who in essence IS the Candy Butchers) brings to his songwriting. Considered a musical genius at age 13, Viola already has put in over 20 years performing. What’s great is that for a man with a lifetime of music already behind him, he continues to grow. Play with Your Head is a step forward, and indicates a lifetime of music still yet to come.

Front and center on this CD is that great unmistakable Viola voice (yes, the same voice that fronted the Oneders singing “That Thing You Do” in the Tom Hanks’ directed movie of the same name). This time around it’s the focal point of the songs, as well it should be (raspy, sort of Graham Parker-ish, but classically expressive). We get Viola the engaging storyteller, drawing us in, using his voice to guide us through the wonderful weave of guitar, bass, drums and sundry additional sounds and instruments with clever and often acrid lyrical turns.

This is a CD where you need to put the headphones on from the start (Viola produced it and Bob Clearmountain mixed it). The haunting bells of a child’s toy music box fade into the distance as drums swell to open this veritable flowerbox of intricately crafted music on “Worry My Dome”. This is upbeat stuff, driven by the solid rhythmic bounce of Pete Donnelly’s bass and Mike Levesque’s drums. Viola’s guitars crunch as he tells us his happy dreams that allow him never to worry his dome again: “I want to kiss a suburban girl / My lips wrapped around her snow white pearl / In the middle of the day at the end of the world / I want to give her Paris and Rome / God forbid she ever finds out on her own / At the end of the day, all the roads lead back home.”

The happiness extends into “My Monkey Made a Man Out of Me”, a wry celebration of addiction punctuated by ethereal sitar-hooks by one who is “bigger than I was before”.

“Ruby’s Got a Big Idea” is another upbeat sing-along party of a song, featuring great click percussion, and sharp rocking guitars, telling the tale of sad-sack Ruby who has nothing but the big idea.

While the above-mentioned is catchy, “You Belong to Me Now” is 3 minutes, 10 seconds of pure pop ear candy perfection. This is the kind of song that will stay with you for a long time — delicious guitar tones that dance around that stellar voice in a tune as pretty as they come.

Again, Viola makes his lyrics special, personal and always a bit inscrutable: “I can almost see your mind working, sanding down the edges / With your nervous laughter and your innocence / Suddenly your spirit has shifted, this you cannot measure / With the same old fear that brings us together.”

“Tough Hang” is where Viola begins to Play with Your Head. This is slightly dissonant music that rocks hard as it reflects the harsh anger of the lyrics. It’s a masterful mix, Viola as the lover usurped by another, upset that “he’s playing thumbelina with my Athena, he’s playing little piggies too”. This is keen wordplay: “Out on the interstate, there’s a man rushing home to you / Just like I did when I had something to rush home to / Did you call me over to rub it in / Did you call me over to dig you out / I can’t take it when he talks shit / Knowing he makes love to you with that mouth.” Viola captures the rage inherent in the situation: “He’s in the same suit, a different hanger / He’s in the same frame, different face / But he is not my doppelganger, cause I can’t be replaced.” Tough hang, indeed.

“Baby, It’s a Long Way Down” is a sweet ballad where the vocals express the pain (ranging from soft to scream). The guitars build as well (check out the gritty hard tones of the middle bridge) and just as they do, it all fades into a wistful and dulcet quiet at song’s end. This is careful craft, where the spaces are just as important as the notes.

“It’s a Line” is all over the place musically, starting out with a bit of Eastern influence, then onto hard guitars and eventually even crossing a bit into progressive rock territory. Viola uses his voice like an instrument here, commanding your attention as he pounds his confessions home: “Hammering restless thoughts into bad poetry / Lying on our backs laughing at the sun / Like we were the first ones to ever see the moon and the stars turned into clichés / You guessed it, it rained on our parade / It’s a line that I’ve drawn, I can’t tell which side I’m on / It’s a line that I’ve drawn, I’ve seen it coming all along.”

It slips into “I Let Her Get Away”, perhaps my favorite song here. This is melancholy of the highest pop musical order, efficiently honed to a bittersweet three minutes. I love the subtle interplay of the guitars and the repeated soft grumble of the bass line, as Viola bemoans that special woman once taken for granted now gone: “Well it all came back in my face / And the past sprayed out like mace / But it was just a little taste of what was to come / Now the only room she’s left for me / Is on her answering machine where I say anything to anyone / She lets me get away with everything / She lets me get away with everything / I let her get away.”

“My Heart Isn’t in It” is a spooky musical pastiche of odd atmosphere and sound loops that explores the universe of a modern generation uninspired and condemned to low achievements like working at fast food emporia (“looking to raise some hell but my heart isn’t in it”).

The final two songs here are Mike Viola as folksinger/soloist, and as good an argument as any for seeing him perform live even without his band. This is emotional storytelling at its best from a man who has years of experience playing to audiences.

“Make No Mistake”, with just vocals and guitar, captivates. Of course, the intriguing lyrics help matters along, as the singer tries to coax talk, inspiration and action from one whose lifetime of mistakes is pictured as a movie: “Well it’s not the way it should be, it’s how it’s gonna be / It’s not a flashback, it’s a memory / All eyes are fixed on you / Fade in — your past crashes in waves on the lawn / Fade out — your last laugh lasts a little too long / In your contract there’s a clause / So you’d better save your applause / When I play, make no mistake.”

One can’t help but wonder if it’s a bit of self-criticism as well, from a man who hasn’t always had the best breaks come his way. Growing up in Stoughton, Massachusetts, he was a teen prodigy (“young and talented”, the Boston newspapers proclaimed), in the spotlight since age 13. He was featured as a teen rock star being chased by screaming girls in a sneaker commercial. His band Snap! was opening for the likes of Quiet Riot, Billy Idol and The Plasmatics while he was still in high school. At 14, he was in Southern California recording with the colorful Kim Fowley.

By junior high, he hung with the burnouts who liked Sabbath, Priest and Maiden, while playing the suburbs with his Mike Viola Alliance. The original Candy Butchers was a duo with childhood friend Todd Foulsham. Most of his twenties were spent playing the Boston/New England circuit.

The name “candy butcher” is a throwback to the days of burlesque-houses at the end of World War II. They appeared on the side of the stage in mismatched suits, telling attractive lies and cajoling the audience into buying cigarettes and popcorn. Viola can identify with these con men: “As a performer, you sort of feel like a big liar. It’s such a weird thing being onstage.”

Todd and Mike married their childhood sweethearts (both named Kim), and talked about making the move to New York. But when Mike’s wife was diagnosed with cancer, everything changed. He stayed with her as she battled long and hard against the disease, but ultimately lost. The loss of his wife devastated Mike.

“The lessons that I’ve learned have been hard enough that I’ve been tempered by my own experience,” says Viola. “My life has definitely been a trial by fire. I never belonged to any sort of religion or any sort of club or clique. It’s always been just me on my own. I’ve fallen in love deeply a few times in my life, and had tragic things happen to those people.”

Boston became too painful for him. Needing a change of scenery he moved to New York to try and rebuild his life. Todd stayed behind and eventually drifted away from music. Viola re-invented The Candy Butchers in downtown Manhattan clubs, playing often and releasing an EP (Live at La Bonbonniere) with the Blue Thumb label. His bad luck continued as a fully recorded album never saw the light of day (the label went bankrupt).

But some good things have happened. His CD Falling into Place was a critical success. And he did co-write and record the lead vocals for That Thing You Do, albeit reluctantly. Additionally, he’s an accomplished sound engineer, having done work for many others. Judging by his collection of thousands of vinyl records, he is a great fan of all things musical, both old and new.

Mostly he admires and respects the kind of music with substance to it, which transforms and transports, and aspires to the same. While incredibly prolific, Viola refuses to stay in one place. He’s experimenting, challenging himself always, whether live or recording at home. On Play with Your Head, he reaches a new level of engaging the patient listener. This CD is the aural equivalent of those 3-D pop-up books. You have to concentrate on each song and then, bang, it all comes into focus and leaves you wowed.

“Call Off the Dogs” is the poignant closer, with a cinematic lead-in that fades to the quiet strains of sweet guitar and voice. In sharp contrast to the pretty and spare lullaby are the caustic lyrics of hurt and emotional pain between mother and son: “Since I’ve called off the dogs / They have left her to bleed / Just a mother who’s lost without a mouth to feed / Plastic covers the furniture where she ate her own / The last time I heard from her I was screening my phone / We both hurt so much, waiting for closure / Hush baby hush, it’s almost over.”

While Viola may never reach the kind of commercial success his one-hit wonder fictional counterparts did, he continues to grow as a craftsman while managing to keep afloat. In that sense, you can’t deny the success he’s achieved here with a little over 37 minutes worth of tight intimate and emotional treasures. Don’t give up on this intelligent well-crafted effort. Play Play with Your Head until you get it; then once you do, you won’t be able to stop.

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.