Buttercup... The name says it all. The band's silky, milky pop is as sweet as the name. And Love-who can argue with that? It is happiness condensed into 40 minutes of audio bliss. These masters of sweetness fall somewhere between Matthew Sweet and R.E.M. on the pop/rock spectrum, and occasionally lean a little toward 70s hillbilly rock. Solid song writing and singing make `Love an engaging and endearing listening experience. Simplicity is the name of the game for Buttercup, and the band never let the songs, none of which runs longer than three minutes and 45 seconds, escape their tight control. The band showcases a well-honed sense of melody, holding the accompaniment in check to let the vocals and lead guitar reign free. The drums, bass and rhythm guitar remain tasteful throughout, while the vocals and lead and slide guitars bear the burden of melody making.
Buttercup plays in and around the Boston area and their label Orr Records is located downtown on Lincoln Street. The lineup is pretty straight forward. Jim Buni and Mike Leahy take care of vocal and guitar-playing duties, and share the singing with Colleen MacDonald, who also plays bass. Dan Lech provides the backbone of the band on drums. What distinguishes Buttercup from run-of-the-mill alternapoppers is Tim Obetz's slide guitar playing. The full-bodied twang he evokes from the instrument superbly compliments Buni and Leahy's guitar work, but Obetz often plays the melody. This gives some tunes a bluesy, country-tinged character as often rambunctious as it is pliant and melancholy. Slide guitar is a refreshing addition to the traditional lineup of dual guitars, vocals, bass and drums.
On "Hide Out," the opening track, Obetz adds a shimmering counterpoint to the guitar line in the first verse. He doesn't stand out, but subtly supports the structure created by the rest of the instruments. Though "Hide Out" doesn't win any awards for complexity, Buttercup's pop sensibility and devotion to melody are apparent in the song's well-structured design and focus on vocals. "Hide Out" doesn't get in the way of itself. From the first downbeat, this is a rocking tune; Lech's drums propel it all the way through, but he stays restrained and doesn't overplay. Throughout Love, he plays with an acute sensitivity to dynamics and melody. tivity to dynamics and melody.
"Seaside Weekend," a hard-driving and energetic pop rock ditty, displays the band's playful side. Right away the tune hooks the listener in, not wasting time with polite introductions. The tune starts with bass and drums grooving hard underneath an enchanting slide guitar melody, injecting the tune with a longing sadness. The rest of "Seaside Weekend" seems like an exercise in controlled anger: beneath the carefree melody the chords are dark and help convey the sad regret implicit in the lyrics. The verse is restrained and Buni's vocals do most of the work. But at the chorus, the distortion comes on and the drums become more aggressive as MacDonald and Buni skillfully harmonize.
The lead voice is sometimes a bit nasally, but only enhances the endearing pop cheesiness that occasionally oozes through. The pop-lite style gives Love an ironic twist, especially in some of the more cynical tunes. Singing in a teeny-bop voice, Buni reflects on the complexity and bitterness of many of his relationships. The sugary tunes do become saccharine sometimes, as if they were a parody of pop history from the Byrds to R.E.M. After a while, the constant tambourine shaking and acoustic guitar strumming become grating. "A Fire," for example, relies heavily on pop love song conventions--the chorus dreamily addresses a lost lover over a slow, swaying beat and swirling chord progression.
But the strange thing about Buttercup is that this kitschy pop works. Buni conveys genuine pathos on "A Fire" despite the banality of the song's form. Blotches like "A Fire" aside, Buttercup writes strikingly original and effective pop tunes. Though at times they seem like a post-pubescent version of Hanson, the maturity of most tunes confounds any attempt to categorize them simply as pop. Surging underneath the glittery surface of these tunes is a seriously reflective look at friendship, regret and love. "I Got Friends" examines the pain associated with losing contact with old friends, but in the end hope for the rejuvenation of those relationships. "Only One" looks at boredom and anxiety associated with the fear of taking risks. Buttercup dig reflectively into their subjects and don't fall into the rut of writing empty love songs.
Love is a great listen. The occasional slips into schmaltz blemish parts of it, but Buttercup's pop sensibility keeps the tunes fresh and energetic and Obetz gives the band a dimension that other alternapop outfits don't have. The slight twang on "Deal With the Devil" gives a coyness to the tune's moodiness, elevating an otherwise trite pop tune to something far more musical. This seems to be the name of the game for Buttercup: reconfiguring pop cliches in extremely inventive ways. Even their love songs are tinged with irony, infusing pop fantasy with real world bitterness. Their ability to use pop as a medium for genuine expression will keep Love from gathering dust on the CD rack.