April 2002

Butterfly Jones - Napalm Springs
Vanguard CD-79590-2
Released: 2001

by Joseph Taylor

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ***
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

[Reviewed on CD]Butterfly Jones is guitarist Michael Gurley and drummer Phil Leavitt, two-thirds of the Southern California band dada. When dada broke up a few years ago, it left behind a hit single ("Dizz Knee Land"), four enjoyable discs of well-written pop, and the sense that its commercial potential had been nowhere near realized. In an era when radio programmers relied upon music they could pigeonhole, dada was the kind of band that easily fell through the cracks. It wasn't a grunge band, it wasn’t really alternative, it wasn’t exactly a punk band -- the band made the unfortunate choice of using all those elements and more to create something unique.

The current state of pop-music radio being what it is, Butterfly Jones’s debut disc, Napalm Springs, is no more likely to go into heavy rotation than dada’s were. That’s too bad. It’s full of great, melodic songs, soaring vocal harmonies, and solid playing. One of dada’s distinguishing characteristics was chops -- it had ‘em to spare. Gurley is the kind of player who gives guitar flash a good name. He plays well-developed, unpredictable solos and has an ear for how to use guitar tones and effects. Leavitt is an aggressive drummer who, like Gurley, doesn’t let his instrumental skills overshadow a song. The same can be said of the additional musicians on the disc, who include Mark De Gli Antoni, of Soul Coughing, on keyboards, and Mark Harris on bass.

Gurley wrote or co-wrote all the tunes on Napalm Springs. He is a natural melodist with a fairly wide knowledge of post-Beatles pop that he doesn't mind borrowing from. He doesn’t mimic other musicians, but his work shows a wide variety of influences. It’s clear that he's learned as much from listening to, say, Brian Wilson as he has from hearing bands like the Clash. Sometimes his references are as amusing as they are surprising: The a capella opening and break in "Sunshine and Ecstasy" could have been lifted from an Association record (trust me, it works).

Still, there’s never a sense that Gurley is merely recycling or dredging up other songs. He has clearly listened to a lot of well-crafted pop and learned from it. The result is that while his music has the aggressiveness and punch that one expects from current rock, it has more melody and harmonic complexity -- more interesting and unexpected chord changes, for example -- than you’ll hear from a lot of other bands. Napalm Springs has an identifiable sound, but it’s full of surprises.

Lyrically, Gurley is unusually upbeat without being sappy. He often looks for hope in moments of despair, as in these lines from "Suicide Bridge": "In an instance everything can turn around/In an instance everything is lost/And all is found."

This hopeful theme is especially convincing because Gurley also shows us the world’s disappointments. "Alright" opens with these hard lines: "I was hangin’ off a balcony over the strip/Checkin’ out the freaks below/It was a very good night to get a grip/Or fall into my own freak show."

But while many current songwriters are content to merely give us nihilism and dystopia, Gurley contrasts life’s dark moments with the hope that lies on the other side of them: " It’s alright it’s ok/Don’t you know tomorrow’s another day/Don’t look now here comes the dawn/Baby sometimes you gotta just hang on."

Napalm Springs was co-produced by Gurley and Scott Gordon (Alanis Morissette, Aerosmith), and it’s filled with interesting sounds that reveal themselves with attentive listening. These effects -- vocal delays, sound effects, keyboard samples -- are used within the context of the songs and they don’t dominate the record. I might wish that the rhythm guitar had been pulled back in one or two spots to allow more room for some of the other things going on in the recording, but for the most part the disc is mixed well.

Butterfly Jones retains some of the hard edge that made dada unique, so the energy level on Napalm Springs is pretty high. While it is clearly a pop disc, it rocks hard. Perhaps what’s most appealing about it is that it embodies a philosophy of life that is summed up in these lines from "Wonder": "Don’t it make you wonder/And ain’t it beautiful." It’s that optimistic outlook, that openness to life and to music’s possibilities, that makes Michael Gurley such a compelling songwriter.