Residual Child isn't the best possible name for the second LP from Chapel Hill's Butterflies. Sure, it's a coming-of-age record, with relics of youth scattered all about. But the beautiful moments here come when the band is ensconced in adulthood, shocked at the way the stakes have suddenly changed but dealing with it. When the music meets the title in the middle, it suffers, stumbling in nostalgia and immaturely rendered metaphors. At worst, it clings to a past with which it should have parted.
It's surprising that maturity would be Butterflies' strength, since 2008's Nothing's Personal thrived on refusing to let youth go. Crooning like a choirboy over beautiful fiddle-driven folk, Josh Kimbrough bemoaned his waning childhood like a weepy Rivers Cuomo. It was a brazenly intimate look at a kid who just couldn't grow up, and it worked.
The new album turns all that upside down. Forsaking the Bright Eyes side of mope and folk, the band now trades in slick, well-produced guitar rock that tips its hat to Pavement and Built to Spill. This new sound supports these songs, blasting the volume and contorting its tones at just the right times to hit home the struggles at play.
On opener "Serious Fun," bent electric guitar strings and hazy keyboards paint the kind of surf that just keeps knocking you down. Kimbrough fights a relationship that can't make it from one phase of life to the next. "Our potential for success was when the standards were low," he sings, his tone knowingly balancing warmth and disappointment. It's catchy and disarmingly honest, cutting through the troubles with sharp one-liners. The album's best songs fight childish urges to find a better result: On "Goodbye (Like a Stranger)," over a soaring riff and catchy acoustic strumming, Kimbrough battles the instinct to wuss out of a doorstep kiss. Rich with down-tempo, reverb-drenched guitar, "Canteen" pictures adult relationships as trench warfare. "If only words came in a can," he sings, "you'd trade that fresh meal for the right words any day."
The middle of the album loses its quest for maturity, and so its winning stride. "Fork Lift" tries to get by on one ill-conceived image (a girlfriend with a fork lift) and verses that indulge tired turns of phrase ("You will say that those were kid games, and now we've reached our stride"). Though the riffs are great, "Guitarist" resorts to the tired metaphor of "needing a chord to strike." Kimbrough weakly tries to re-assume the role of boy singer who can't figure out how to be an adult.
Though he may not have been one when he penned his last record, Kimbrough is certainly one now; the world-weary issues here attest to that. When he faces them head-on, he reveals himself to be an incredibly emotive songwriter, one who can frame adulthood just as well as he did adolescence.