Butch Walker’s new album, Stay Gold, is classic, earnest rock ‘n’ roll, the kind of songwriter-driven pop that really doesn’t have a home anymore that sits nicely beside Alejandro Escovedo, Old 97’s, and Uncle Tupelo. Walker has roots in hair metal, power pop, and even pure Top 40, having worked with both Taylor Swift and All American Rejects. The man has many talents from producer, to multi-instrumentalist to producer, but more than anything the man knows his way around a hook.
The hooks permeate every corner, Dollar General, and dusty road on Walker’s new record. Stay Gold is the aural equivalent of a beat-up denim jacket decorated with patches and pins: a little ragged around the edges, maybe a little obvious, but an undeniable fit. Walker dives guitar first into rock tropes of “tonight,” lost girls, and broken boys, and shouts them with genuine conviction, which sells the record. Stay Gold feels like a band of bell-bottomed rocker dudes in leather jackets who cranked out a record in a night, but knowing Walker’s style, it’s far more likely meticulously assembled.
The title track kicks off the record with a sound reminiscent of the kind of new wave of Americana that T Bone Burnett brought to Elvis Costello and Marshall Crenshaw records. The Outsiders-referencing tune gives way to at least three different hooks in the first chorus alone, showcasing Walker as a master pop craftsman.
The production on the album recalls that of The Killers (particularly Sam’s Town and Battle Born) and Gaslight Anthem. Walker showcases the same Springsteen fetishization, his echo-y vocals shouting “baby, baby, baby, where are you” and rattling off a soaring guitar solo on “East Coast Girl”. Elsewhere, “Ludlow Expectations” kicks off with the sound of a speeding car lifted from the Jim Steinman playbook before giving way to romantic ‘80s synths and angst-ridden stuttering vocals building towards the big rock chorus. Walker handles guitar, organ, and bass duties along with “co-conspirator” Ryan Adams. Adams’ involvement isn’t surprising, as Stay Gold recalls Adams’ Rock n Roll as well as his abandoned “Pinkhearts Sessions.” Roots rock and Americana permeate the album, along with a touch of white-boy Motown on the Stones-y “Can We Just Not Talk About Last Night”.
In an album of high-octane rockers and explosive, sing-along choruses, “Descending” — a duet with singer/songwriter Ashley Monroe — brings some softer prettiness to the raucous record, ending what would be the first side on vinyl, giving way to the snarling bounce on “Irish Exit”. The second side ends again with the quiet, John Hiatt-influenced “Record Store.”
Stay Gold isn’t going to change the world and it won’t kickstart a new rock revolution, but it’s a terrific pop rock record about boys and girls in America. The anthemic, sing-along choruses are custom-built for arenas, but old-fashioned American rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t make its way to stadiums these days unless The Boss himself brings you on as an opener. Walker appears to be rewriting the same song that love-struck cool guys with Telecasters have been writing for years, but what a wonderful song it is.
Essential Tracks: “East Coast Girl”, “Can We Just Not Talk About Last Night”, and “Descending”