CD Review of Self-titled by Richard Butler

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Released: 2006
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It’s a funny thing that to be successful, your rock band doesn’t necessarily have to have a good singer to have a good frontman. And we’re not just talking about that whole stage presence/charisma thing, either. Sure, there are guys like Freddie Mercury and Mick Hucknall that can sing rings around you, but for every Freddie, there are ten John Lydons. For heaven’s sake, look at Jim Kerr and Bob Geldof. Could they sing? Hell no. But didn’t they have cool voices? Yes.

And then there’s Richard Butler, who takes this voice/singer thing to a difference plane altogether. As the leader of the Psychedelic Furs and Love Spit Love, Butler’s never been blessed with range, either vocally or lyrically. Indeed, someone could easily create one of those random lyric generators for Butler songs, and each song would contain a reference to sleep, love, and rain. But no matter; he has one of the coolest voices in rock music, and that is all that matters. A little raspy and a lot British, when you sing his songs, you don’t just sing them but sing them like he does. You could be from Alabama, and the second “Love My Way” comes on, you’re doing the best British impression you can muster. To have a voice like that is a gift.

Strange, then, that Richard Butler, the first solo endeavor from the Furs frontman, seems to almost go out of its way to downplay the role of that wonderful voice in these songs. Given the vast difference in the sonic territory that Butler roams – think acoustic electronica, a far cry from the straight-up rock and pop of the Furs and LSL – you would think that Butler would leave some telltale Butlerisms behind for the fans to cling to. But no, Richard Butler is as complete a makeover as you’re likely to find. Luckily, it’s a good makeover, though one wonders why he chose to change his spots so drastically.

If the album contains any bridge to Butler’s past, it has to be “Broken Aeroplanes,” which the label naturally picked for the first single until Butler insisted that they go with leadoff track “Good Days Bad Days.” But “Aeroplanes” has all of the soaring vocals that Butler fans expect, to a mid-tempo beat along the lines of “Am I Wrong,” Love Spit Love’s first big hit. Butler’s second choice for a single, “Breathe,” is like a less disturbing sister of Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film),” while the driving “California” tells a tale about Caroline, who may or may not be the same Caroline from “Pretty in Pink.”

But the real breakthrough moment is “Nothing’s Wrong,” a dark piece with a droning riff that recalls Mezzanine-era Massive Attack, coupled with a spooky choir that takes over the second half of the song. Butler, who mainly stays in his lower range, spends much of the song in his upper range, even venturing into falsetto territory, and the results are extraordinary. Radiohead would surely be proud to call this their own. Okay, so that’s two comparisons to Radiohead, but don’t be fooled; this is no OK Computer knockoff. It shares some of the band’s experimental nature with electronics, but it’s nowhere near as bleak. “Last Monkey,” in fact, starts off as a bubbly electro-pop ditty but then ramps up and takes off at the finish, and the closing track, “Maybe Someday,” is a sweet little lullaby, the kind of thing Thom Yorke’s kids wish he’d sing to them.

Richard Butler, in the end, is quite enjoyable, though Furs/LSL purists should be warned that they’re getting something far different than they think. Still, for all the lengths Butler went to do something different, both with his songs and his singing, it’s still That Voice. And That Voice is pretty damn cool.

~David Medsker