Review Summary: The album of the year.
After 2004's Sunrise Over Sea
, the platform was set for these three fellas to go on to new heights. So when it takes three years to come out with a new album, it's only reasonable to expect a bit. A fair bit. After a couple of years out of the public spotlight, they've produced an album nothing short of exceptional. Not quite flawless, but just about as close to it as you'll see.
John Butler is a talented musician. His ability to write catchy guitar licks is just about as good as any. The difference between this album and Sunrise Over Sea
is the consistency. This album is consistent for the entire hour. Consistently brilliant. Now I don’t want to get fan-boyish (I believe this is the term the kids use these days) but this is my candidate for album of 2007, and I have a feeling it will still be come Christmas. Each song has been stuck in my head at some point or another over the past three weeks. The hooks are catchy as hell, the lyrics are beautifully crafted - covering a range of topics - and the musicianship is dexterous.
The innate energy of the former Western Australian busker is central the JBT sound. There is a palpable ‘live’ feeling during the drawn-out instrumentals, and the album has a genuine ‘live’ quality about it - probably a prerequisite from a band often labelled a ‘Jam Band’, but still. The producing and editing appears minimal - it’s raw and unadulterated talent. The lead single, Funky Tonight
, has been ‘thrashed’ on Australian radio and in general down here in the Trio’s homeland, and not without good reason. It’s a swinging, bustling tribute to his wife with a memorable opening guitar riff showcasing John’s unique finger-picking style he employs so well on his 11-string 12-string guitar. (Yeah, 11 strings. He removes one so he can solo better. Whatever, it works.) And the feeling that is central to The John Butler Trio is unmistakable on Funky Tonight
- you get the mental image of three guys standing on a street corner playing this with their improvised instruments, just doing their thing. While the song is in no way unrefined or coarse, the busker feel comes through in this one. It has a tangible sense of familiarity that few others can emulate. It’s a cracking song, designed to get you funky.
You get the feeling that John Butler is in a good place on Grand National
. The lyrics are contemplative but not negative, thoughtful but not overdone and poignant without being forceful. The opener, Better Than
, is John’s take on both modern capitalist society and individual struggle. The lyrics are uncomplicated yet undeniably effective. The line (which in the liner notes John admits is taken from a Little Richard
interview, of all places) “The grass is greener but just as hard to mow
” is one of the lines of the album. The unyielding chorus delivers its message deftly: “…Life’s not about what’s better than. You could be better than that, Don’t let it get the better of you… Life’s not about what’s better than.
The album moves between tender, exposed ballads and funky (for lack of a better word), upbeat ‘jam’ tracks effortlessly, giving Grand National
both diversity and a magnetism few other albums have. The tempered Used To Get High
confirms the maturity of the album and continues the theme of personal choice, and expands on Better Than
with a more personal approach. With one of the most memorable choruses on the album, Used To Get High
explains exactly that - that John used to ‘get high’ from many of the vices of Western society.
“I used to get high for a living,
Believing everything that I saw on the TV.
I used to get high for a living,
Eating all the bullshit food that they sold me.
I used to get high for a living,
Thinking that my destiny was out of my control.
I used to get high for a living,
There’s lots of different reasons and I tell you so.
Used To Get High
is one of the strongest tracks from the album. Gov Did Nothin’
takes the album back to the band’s roots (no pun intended) with an eight-minute jam about government action - specifically, governments not acting to help humanitarian causes but helping war efforts and the like. The lyrics dance around the point (but in a good way) and the slide guitar is used well. This song is quite strange. The first three minutes follow a typical pattern of verse, chorus etc., and then from three minutes to the end there is no singing - not even a reprise of the chorus. It reinforces the ‘live’ feeling. There is a moment where the slide guitar reaches its climax for eight bars or so which is the only moment of unpleasantness on the album. But the instrumental moves between Rock, Jazz, Roots and Blues and probably more to showcase the variety and ability of the three lads.
To highlight the consistency of this album, just as we are getting ready to wrap it up along comes Fire In The Sky
at track 12. The Rootsie, slide-guitar driven track is as catchy as anything on the album, and the heavy, unexpected chorus adds yet more variety to the already impressive range. “I don’t understand, how one could kill a man, In the name of peace - that’s ridiculous
.” These lines are used impressively throughout the song, and the rhyming of peace with ridiculous is oh-so-cool (…"that’s ridicu-lease"
). John uses a lot of irregular tunings on his 12-string, and these tunings have been credited with helping create the distinctive JBT sound. The guitar work is one of (if not) the musical highlights on the album. The introductory guitar lick on Devil Running
is one of the catchiest bars of guitar work I've heard in a while. This splendid lick leads in to four minutes largely similar to Fire In The Sky
, as the mellow verses are contrasted by the intense, distorted-guitar choruses. The guitar work in the solo is yet again memorable.
is heavily influenced by John’s love for his wife, who I assume is called Daniella
. This love and affection comes through in a number of the tracks, and as a theme it entwines attractively with the political and social commentary. It adds to the feeling of completeness of the album. It covers a lot of issues adeptly, supported by the rich and vibrant sound. There’s not enough time to talk about all the tracks individually - which I could do, but I hate reading long reviews - but each is as deserving as the next. John’s really outdone himself with this one. It’s certainly the best album he and his two amigos have released, and it would take something phenomenally special for this not to go down as his greatest achievement when he hangs up his guitar (or cuts his nails). Really I would struggle to recommend a better album if you are looking for anything in the genres of soft-rock, roots, folk, jam-rock, country, celtic, bluegrass or reggae. Really, it’s that good.