MERRY CHRISTMAS, CHARLIE BROWN! Jeffrey Bützer. Photo by Ken Lackner

Both stylish and whimsical, Jeffrey Bützer’s latest album, Soldaderas, is an abstract score for a film of the imagination. Over the course of 10 instrumental numbers, the album paints a picture of a day in the life of the female militias that played an integral role in winning the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1917, ultimately transforming the Mexican government and the culture at large.

Of course, telling such an epic tale through music is no small feat to accomplish, especially when there are no lyrical cues to guide the story. Throughout Soldaderas, in songs with titles such as “Guns of Morelos” and “A Woman in Trouble,” as well as in the album’s title track, moments of intense drama, fluttering beauty, and guitar noise gravitate toward the most romantic aspects of a traditional Spaghetti Western ambiance. But spacious, open-ended arrangements carved out by Bützer’s signature brittle piano and accordion touches, and an emphasis on sonic texture leave plenty of room for the imagery to unfold.

“I have always been a big fan of Spaghetti Westerns, and there’s a whole genre of Spaghetti Westerns that are Zapata films,” Bützer says. “That is where all of my knowledge of the Mexican Revolution comes from. I read a book about these female militias. I’m always dabbling with twangy guitars, but I’d never leaned too heavily into doing something in a straight-up Spaghetti Western style. So I decided to try it.” He goes on to say, “The concept of the album being about these militias just became a fun idea to work with and tie it all together.”

More than that, Soldaderas is Bützer’s third album released between August 23 and October 3, 2021 — less than two months time — following The Singing Bird’s Soft Trap and The Peripatetic. Recorded and released in quick succession amid the COVID-19 pandemic, these albums take shape as the culmination of a shift in Bützer’s songwriting.

Beginning with his 2006 debut album, She Traded Her Leg, Bützer laid the blueprint for a highly structured musical style. His music, composed largely on a toy piano at the time, was guided by precise notes and minimal arrangements where every sound was specifically placed in each song. Over time, his emphasis has moved increasingly away from melody and more toward embracing texture, improvisation, and single-take recordings with minimal overdubs to carry his songs and ideas.

“At some point, I had a moment where I said to myself, ‘Man, I don’t want to plan out what I’m doing anymore, I kind of just want to just make noise,’” Bützer says. “One of my favorite albums that I listened to is Neil Young’s Dead Man soundtrack, which is mostly just a guitar. There’s an organ in there, too, but it’s mostly just him improvising on a guitar. It feels like one long take. I love listening to music like that, So I figure if I like listening to albums like that, there has to be at least two or three other people out there who might want to hear this.”

THE COMPARTMENTALIZATIONALISTS: Mitch Laue (from left), Sean Zearfoss, and Jeffrey Bützer. Photo by David Batterman.

Even though he’s adopted this stripped-down approach to music, there’s still an element of complexity at work in Bützer’s body of work. In conversation, it’s impossible to talk about his surf rock group the Compartmentalizationalists, or the more pop-oriented group the Bicycle Eaters, without slowing down to pronounce every syllable. Even the title of his album The Peripatetic is a bit of a verbal speed bump.

“None of that is ever really done by design,” Bützer says. “I just don’t like band names. At first we had Midwives, and quickly I did not like that. Then it became Bicycle Eaters and I really didn’t like that… This is why I can never get a tattoo.”

The name, the Compartmentalizationalists, was initially planned to be used for just one recorded project that wasn’t supposed to ever play live. However, plans changed. “It’s all just aesthetic,” he says. “I’ve always been obsessed with the absurd, surrealism, David Lynch, and really, I just liked the way the name looked when I saw it written out.”

Every December, Bützer switches gears to play drums with pianist T.T. Mahoney, leading an ensemble through jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi’s 1965 score to the animated TV special “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The lineup is filled out by bass player Mike Beshera and vocalists Kelly Winn and Audrey Gámez.

This December marks the 14th year the group has brought “A Charlie Brown Christmas” to the stage. Despite his penchant for stripping things down, Guaraldi’s songs are anything but easy to perform live. As Bützer explains, “It’s pretty much the best Christmas album ever.” It’s also a spectacle that’s as whimsical and no less stylish than a parable about the women who helped win the Mexican Revolution, and it’s become an Atlanta holiday tradition.

This year the group performsA Charlie Brown Christmas” three nights in Atlanta at The EARL, December 10-12. The following weekend, the group will travel up Highway 316 for a night at The 40 Watt on December 16.

Read the print version of this story in the December issue of Record Plug Magazine.

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