Will Butler + Sister Squares: Will Butler + Sister Squares [Album Review]

Will Butler + Sister Squares
Will Butler + Sister Squares
Merge Records [2023]

There should be little surprise that after spending 18 years playing in Arcade Fire, Will Butler carries some of that band’s sound and temperament with him into his debut with Sister Squares, or that his voice at times recalls that of his brother Win. What might surprise, though, is that a number of times while listening to the bubbling synth pop of “Tall Grass” and “Stop Talking,” I not only thought of the 80’s pop band bordering on disco, ABC, but also Bryan Ferry at Roxy Music’s most accessible and commercial. Butler had three previous solo albums before leaving Arcade Fire, but here has joined with some of the players from those albums to form Sister Squares, featuring his wife Jenny Shore, plus Julie Shore, Sara Dobbs and Miles Francis, with the string section: Camellia Hartman, Meitar Forkosh, and Anna Stromer.

Since Arcade Fire comparisons are inevitable, the beat conscious dancefloor impulses appear to have a connection with the airy, disco-friendly tracks of Reflektor and Everything Now. While the first three full songs are pure pop fantasy, in addition to the two named above, “Willows,” “Me & My Friends” is punctuated by a solid walking rhythm, offering the assurance that “I’m alright,” something that needs to be said aloud, given the changes in orientation, and his new band setting, lush as it is with a strong chorus of female harmonies throughout, and in “Saturday Night.”

While the top half of Will Butler + Sister Squares, is filled to the brim with pop song approachability, from “Car Crash” on the album turns more experimental. “Arrow of Time” begins with that some pop song hookiness as the other album singles with a beat reminiscent of later pop efforts by Talking Heads, but then mid-song it turns into a fast, group vocal rant, a move that feels very Arcade Fire in spirit an execution. But, “I Am Standing In a Room” finds Butler in a conceptual art piece, speaking a poem over a steady, pounding piano, asking “I want to talk to the person who’s playing piano.” It’s a mildly amusing attempt at absurdist art, but hardly pleasing or enjoyable as a musical expression. Similarly “Good Friday, 1613” stretches credulity, but is thankfully brief. “The Window,” not so much.

Clearly, Will Butler + Sister Squares have forged some relevant musical connections through their singles, enough to earn them new unit significant levels of good will, marking this self-titled debut as a good start. The looming question is if they can develop a sound and artistic approach that stands over and against previous alliances.

“Tall Grass” / “Stop Talking” / “Willows”

Arcade Fire / Father John Misty / Death Cab For Cutie

Policy (2015)

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Brian Q. Newcomb

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