Review Summary: Intelligent, original and unique on all fronts, this album should be as huge worldwide as it is in Australia.
Pity the John Butler Trio. Were they native to America or Britain, it seems that one way or another they would have exposure to media afforded to far worse and less innovative acts than themselves, and would likely become as unbelievably huge internationally as they are in their native county, Austalia. Why is this?
Well, all of it really rests on John Butler himself. The man who runs the whole show is an astounding musician, innovative and original. His virtuosity, though it may not be readily apparent on record, is in the same league as the best shredders. Listen to his lighting riff off There'll Come a Time, or his perfect rhythmic playing on Betterman, and try to see yourself playing it (bear in mind he has destroyed his fingers and now relies on iron fingertips to play). It doesn't matter that his set up is completely unheard of (a 12 string acoustic guitar, minus one string, in an outlandish tuning played through bizzare effects pedals), his playing style is something unique also. Soulful and funky, it also remains precise and rigid. As a guitarist, he is one of a kind.
His singing voice isn't half bad either. A combination of a southern drawl and more precise vocals, he might not get the pitch on every note, but has enough charisma to keep everything engrossing and entertaining. He has another advantage in that he quite simply doesn't sound like anyone else.
This individual musician affords the band the opportunity to create an individual sound. The use of double bass and very simplistic drums means the music retains a roots feel, but the guitar takes all this and places it firmly in the 21st century. The production sound is perfect in most places, with What You Want's soaring (and very real) strings and Treat Yo Mama's decidedly heavy tone creating varied soundscapes each of which hits the mark dead on. Only Damned to Hell fails in the production stakes, but then again it is a throwback to redneck banjo playing.
And though he may have got the sound perfect, Butler keeps in mind it doesn't matter how good your production is if you haven't got the song to match. And so, for the most part, there isn't a song on here that falls much below being masterpieces in their own right. From the simplistic groove based efforts Zebra and Company Sin, to the epic and soaring What You Want and Betterman, there isn't much to fault. There'll Come A Time in particular stounds out for its constant innovation whilst retaining the sense that this is one song.
Lyrically, the album surpasses almost everything I've heard. Company Sin's exploration on how foreigners can't begin to appreciate what is foreign to them (it's not his land, it's not his song, he can't work out why he don't belong,) maintains a brillianly cynical feel, but it is the heartfelt lyrics that have the biggest impact. Peaches and Cream brings tears to my eyes through the sheer joy being expressed (that's John's actual daughter lauging in the intro), whist Betterman's 'Beautiful beautiful,' refrain, helped by perfect vocal arrangement, still makes any surroundings and any person seem that little bit more beautiful. He even gets political in Oldman (enjoy your last, last taste of freedom!), and manages to sound far more convincing than the endless uneducated rambles of young punk pop bands,
From all I have said, you may be wondering why this album hasn't got a 5. Well, the thing is, its not perfect. Damned to Hell is a major let down right after the album has hit its stride. Also, Seeing Angels (despite its brilliant chorus) and Bound to Ramble are quite simply too long. They drag on and not even Butlers always innovative playing can save them from being boring and a bit self indulgent. It's a pity, because if those three tracks were removed, this album would be perfect.
Despite this, it remains an album that is far more engaging than almost everything produced in the northern hemisphere, boosted by one of the best musicians of his generation and some real intelligence in the song writing and producation. Pity the John Butler Trio, because though Australia is perhaps an integral part to their sound, their isolation on the huge island is preventing their worthy music from dominating charts worldwide.
Peaches and Cream,
There'll Come a Time