Bernard Butler
Friends & Lovers

Way back in '92 Bernard Butler was making quite a fuss in the "must-see" band Suede. Ask him, and yes, he would even tell you, without shame, that he was a guitar hero.

Butler, actually a fantastic guitarist, probably still stands by that comment today. Yet things aren't always the same venturing out alone.

Back when Suede was still around and on Columbia Records, Butler couldn't get the attention of label execs with a machete and a hockey mask. Now that Butler has two solo records and buzz, Columbia is introducing him to America. Both of his works, including Friends & Lovers, are available here now.

Which makes perfect sense: Butler likes to noodle, and my oh my how America loves a guitarist who noodles.

While his trademark wiggly playing is still intact, Butler's swagger has gone soft-core. He gets room to play and shine on this record, but he also exposes himself as a weak writer and singer. At best, all of his songs are lukewarm. Each is its own inert object.

Butler has said recently that his old fans think he's too mainstream and his label thinks he's a little too left field. How about this: He's not enough of either, too much of both. -- Tim Murrah

Steely Dan
Two Against Nature
Giant Records

Steely Dan's first studio release in two decades delivers exactly the kind of music that made the band one of the '70s' most unique and challenging acts to jibe with the rock crowd. Two Against Nature boasts layer upon layer of complex material, much of it deep-rooted in jazz and odd rhythms. Wandering melodies punched up by tasty multi-horn arrangements and guitarist Walter Becker's sustained tones are all held together by raspy-voiced singer/multi-keyboardist Donald Fagen. Fagen's lyrics are just as maddeningly obtuse and open to interpretation as ever, like the overachieving star of an NYU poetry class (but at least you think you know what the hell Fagen's talking about most of the time). Two Against Nature is the record that easily could have followed 1980's Gaucho or passed as a collection of "lost tracks" from the '70s. And that is not a criticism.

The record opens with the memorable melody (and there's quite a few of them) of "Gaslighting Abbie," a novelistic yarn about vacationing in the summer with a soul mate. The literary fixation continues with the fine "Almost Gothic," which includes the immortal couplet: "I'm so excited I can barely cope / I'm sizzling like an isotope." And it works.

But Fagen doesn't sing about only bookish ladies. In fact, the best songs are about losers and fringe dwellers, some from Dan tunes past. The stridently anti-nostalgic tone of the 1973 track "My Old School" is hurtled into the present in "What a Shame About Me," in which the main character tells a much more successful old girlfriend that he's out of rehab, working as a bookstore clerk and still punching out that novel. The May-December romantic theme of "Hey Nineteen" reappears in "Janie Runaway," in which our protagonist contemplates loving the teenage "wonderwaif of Gramercy Park," and in "Cousin Dupree," when another dirty old man lusts after a, um, mature family member. Throughout, Fagen peppers tracks with specific names and locales that bring to mind a fantasy bohemian community in New York's Lower East Side or Village.

However, not everything on the disc works. The title track loses steam with its repetitive rhythms and narrative about the denizens of a bizarre apartment complex; the uninspiring "Jack of Speed" wouldn't qualify as a B-side; and "Negative Girl" is tired tripe about a druggie girlfriend. Overall, the record is a fine addition to the band's catalog and enhances its critical standing, but its biggest obvious weakness is in Becker and Fagen's inability to rock out. "Bodhisattva," anyone?

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero