If Chris Butler isn’t the most literate songwriter of our time, he certainly is the wittiest. Stephin Merritt’s deadpan sounds dowdy next to Butler’s whimsy.
And Butler is nothing if not brave.
He set the record for the longest pop song in the world — according to the Guiness Book — for "The Devil Glitch", a 69-minute tune with an impossibly long chorus. His 1997 album, I Feel a Bit Normal Today, contained songs bordering on theatrical. But his most daring achievement to date is The Museum of Me, Vol 1, an album recorded entirely on vintage consumer recorders.
We’re not talking White Stripes studio revivalism here — we’re talking about finding the early century equivalents to the Walkman which taped Michelle Shocked at the Kerville Folk Festival in the mid-1980s. We’re talking wire recorders and aluminum cylinders.
In an interview with Tape Op magazine, Butler sought these devices out not because they sounded good but because they sounded bad. The moment he recorded a song on an old cylinder, he created instantly vintage music — something that sounded old and scratchy and from another time.
The Museum of Me sounds like some sort of academic exercise, and on some level it is. The array of equipment Butler employs is dizzying — some track have fidelity that sounds thoroughly modern, while others end up tinny and inaudible.
This album wouldn’t have worked if Butler attempted to write in any style from the last two decades. No misplaced techno beats or punk machinations. In fact, Butler does a magnificent job writing for the device on which he’s recording.
"Swamp Boy" sounds like classic Eisenhower-era rock ‘n’ roll. Robert Pollard could only wish something on Bee Thousand could sound as cool as "Davey’s Sister’s Home from College", and all "Bad Moon over Mel Bay" needs is Duane Eddy.
The more polished tracks — the ones where you can hear all the different instruments — aren’t as stimulating as the rougher, "ol’ time" tracks, so Butler resorts to his more cerebral writing to keep things interesting. I love a songwriter who can balance discord with harmony at a turn of a measure.
Butler himself doesn’t possess a voice that would give the likes of Taylor Hicks any sleepless nights. But his performances are incredibly spirited on this album, and the demo quality of many of these tracks only heighten that chutzpah.
The Museum of Me, Vol. 1 is an entertaining conundrum. It’s an album of new work meant to sound old. It reveals the sturdiness of obsolete technology, at the same time turning that technology’s perceived weaknesses into strengths. Above all, it’s an enjoyable set of songs, as diverse as it is coherent.