The Voluntary Butler Scheme – At Breakfast, Dinner, Tea [Album]


Originally published at Sonic Dice, August 2009.

According to their press bumf, The Voluntary Butler Scheme mainly consists of “One-man-band Rob Jones”, and their sound “is like a mix of Badly Drawn Boy and Brian Wilson’s more acid-fried work”. Brian Wilson, eh? Hmm, we’ll see. A less hyperbolic appraisal finds the model is bass-driven indie-pop, encompassing Regina Spektor-ish kookiness and a cutesy innocence. The music is relatively well-written and tracked, nicely layered in its production, with infectious melodies at every turn. Although by the same token, At Breakfast, Dinner, Tea is relentlessly, relentlessly annoying.

Generally the shorter songs – such as Tabasco Sole – are better; their limited exposition renders them significantly less irritating than the lengthier tracks, which seem to drag gratingly. Breakfast provides a Sufjan Stevens-ish opening, mimicking the miniscule interludes of his work. This ushers forth Trading Things In, its Noah and the Whale-style ukulele, appropriately tinny drum sound and cute handclaps supporting a brilliantly fuzzy bass sound. The one-line chorus is great, as are the brief successive bridges; the verses aren’t so good, mainly lyrically. Their wretchedly sweet sentiments only hit the mark every once in a while, “Just like coffee and tea I need you regularly” being a ‘did he really just say that’ moment. At any rate, the organ solo is pleasant, representative of the instrumental variation and high novelty factor of The Voluntary Butler Scheme. Dancing With Ted Danson is a highlight, its brief instrumental My Doorbell-style groove essentially providing an intro to the aforementioned lead single Tabasco Sole. When the main melody line of Until My Watch Runs Out Of Battery kicks in, it couldn’t sound more like 1234 by Feist if it tried. The pitter-patter drums nicely compliment the trombone honking, piano and quirkily cool synthesized voice; although I doubt even Ms. Feist could muster anything as twee as this.

Multiplayer revolves around a Beatles-y guitar riff and Motown backing vocals until the verses begin, when the pleasant beginning is usurped considerably. Lyrics are crammed in around the leisurely tempo like luggage in a family hatchback on Bank Holiday weekend. Their tongue-twisting fashion gives the illusion that they are saying something vast and profound; in actual fact they are mostly pointless statements devoid of context. Of particular guilt is the chorus, parading what Jones seems fairly convinced to be a chin-stroking musing in annoyingly conceited manner. “Love is a game, a game for two. Love is a game I wanna play with you” is how it goes – now where have we heard that before? Well, for a start, loads of places; everyone from Santana to Lady-arsing-Gaga has conceived of love as a game. Maybe you’ve noticed NSync bleating about being “Just another player in your game for two” once you’ve stopped dancing, ‘Scrubs’-alike. Bat for Lashes’ single Sleep Alone conceives of love as “A two-hearted dream”, which is simple, yet a lot more profound than what The Voluntary Bulter scheme has to offer. The most famous song Multiplayer’s chorus recalls is Nat King Cole’s L-O-V-E, massacred by Joss Stone on a perfume advert not-long-enough ago. This seems like a pretty damning indictment, one that suggests Jones’ lyrics deal in hackneyed stereotypes. The two guys who wrote L-O-V-E decided that “Love is more than just a game for two” over forty years ago; you’d be forgiven for thinking that’s time enough to come up with something new. To address the point that it’s unfair to heap criticism on an album’s lyrics, the retort is that it depends how important a role the words to that album play. At Breakfast, Dinner, Tea’s lyrics are fairly prominent and the focus given to these infuriatingly-inane lyrics and voice is completely unwarranted. The fact is that lyrics are not the be-all and end-all of any album; but they seem to be here. Whilst the album’s musical flourishes are by-and-large successful, the lyrical ones never ever are. When they’re at a premium – ironically on Hot Air Balloon Heart most notably – the results are vastly more satisfying.

Laundry’s clicky Maccabees guitar sound quickly gets old and boring. There are lots of layers, but none really do anything to keep the attention except bass and keyboard, and even they simply mirror each other’s riffs. Jones tries to sound earnest, a tactic revisited on Turn Country Lanes Into Motorways and failing both times. He tries to be sincere and grown-up but just ends up hollow and boring; his attempts to plumb depths that he can’t possibly hope to reach simply come across as mawkish. It’s also predictably the longest track. Because obviously the longer the song the more serious artistic merit it deserves. Split ostensibly deals with a relationship breaking up in the same remarkably bland, depthlessly naive manner. The intro is great – all cartwheeling synths and frantically-bashed toy drums – but the track gets decidedly less great after that, particularly Jones’ knuckle-whitening keening on the words “wheels” and “heels”. The thing is, there’s always something lurking on the underside of twee pop. The most obvious comparison with The Voluntary Butler Scheme is The Boy Least Likely To, most notable for minor hit and insurance-peddling soundtrack Be Gentle With Me. That song includes the offhand line “Be gentle, ‘cos I’m mental”, delivered in the same fey, cheery manner as all their other lyrics. Similarly, I See Spiders When I Close My Eyes deals with hypochondria, paranoia and hallucinations, but still sounds like you could cuddle it. It’s this sudden revealing of darkness – like Mickey Mouse abruptly confessing he hears voices telling him to burn things – that makes twee pop interesting. And it’s the lack of this which makes At Breakfast, Dinner, Tea so irritating; butter wouldn’t melt in its mouth, and that’s enraging. It’s hard to tell what’s less welcome; shallow, bouncy and twee songs such as Multiplayer or uneventful attempts at songwriting maturity like Night Driver. Slightly more positively, Sleeping On Top Of Things is more interesting than most of the album’s latter half but is a pretty obvious choice as a final track, seeming suspiciously tailor-made for that specific role.

To put it in terms Jones would be enamoured with, At Breakfast, Dinner, Tea is a bit like blowing soap bubbles, in that all ages will briefly be amused. Whoever you are, however old you are, blowing bubbles is awesome; similarly, the doe-eyed appeal of The Voluntary Butler Scheme will snag you at certain moments. However the difference is that small children can be amused with these pointless sacks of air for hours on end, whereas the rest of us soon go on with our bill-paying, plant-watering, shower-fixing lives. The same applies to this album, the songs are essentially just insubstantial bubbles and as soon as you try to grab onto them they vaporise. You do feel like slapping Jones around the face at times and scream at him to stop being so unbearably twee; he lays it on with a trowel, which is both infinitely annoying and sickeningly smug. This is the case in The Eiffel Tower and the BT Tower when he sings “And like when you said you loved the songs of the Pet Shop Boys but hate the way they sound, so I play them all out for you on just guitar and kazoo”. If you’re thinking maybe this particular line doesn’t translate well into black-and-white, there’s really no other way of putting it; you’re wrong, it’s just shit. It’s not big, it’s not clever and it’s certainly not cute. And Jones, fuck off about ghetto blasters, they’re namechecked twice! You’re trying to be endearing and retro; we get it.

If you really, genuinely adore the cutesiest bands mentioned in the tags – and only if you practically worship the ground they walk on – feel free to add another point to the score. And if you like your music ‘Will and Grace’ sickly sweet, then buy away. If neither of these applies to you, then stay away.

3 out of 10.

Sonic Dice score: 2 out of 6

Split Records
The Voluntary Butler Scheme on Myspace
The Voluntary Butler Scheme on Last.fm

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