Review Summary: About as raw as it is possible to be without sounding awful.
John Butler was once a busker on the streets of Fremantle, one of the most popular around too. During his time on the corner he sold an independently created cassette tape entitled Searching for Heritage
to anyone that was interested. It proved a hit with the locals and the sales gave him enough money to find two more members (Gavin Shoesmith and Jason McGann on bass and drums respectively) and as a trio independently release their debut, self-titled album.
Butler is the centre of attention here, often eliminating the backing band entirely, but not without good reason. John Butler
is an incredibly raw, energetic and intelligent display of a rising talent that would soon reach the forefront of Australian folk music. His unique, finger-picking playing style (a 12 string guitar with the high G string removed) is the main attraction here, and it doesn’t disappoint. A rich mixture of styles including eastern, western, celtic and blues, his compositions are original, skilful and absolutely gorgeous.
For the greatest example of this look no further than “Ocean”, a 12-and-a-half minute epic guitar instrumental of highs and lows that resounds with so much passion and intensity that it’s hard to believe the man himself isn’t sitting in front of you playing it. You may find it hard to believe that its possible to make an interesting 12 minute instrumental song with only one instrument (hell, I recognize that for some people an 8 minute Opeth song is hard to sit through) but he accomplishes it with vigour. Just when you think it’s slowed down too much and you want to skip the last 3 minutes he kicks it into an entirely different gear and everything begins again.
But that isn’t where it ends, oh no. Butler isn’t content with being “the guy with the guitar” and he lets you know he’s more than that through his lyrics. Politically motivated most of the time and certainly thought provoking, his conviction and intelligence is matched only by his guitar playing. The pure emotion and power that lies in his vocals can only be felt through the “live” feel that an album like this allows. Consider these verses on album opener “Valley”.
“So have you been to your God lately?
No Jesus Christ, he ain't nowhere to be seen
He is not there matey
He has never been
So have you been to your church lately?
No cannot find the key to your home
They got no support for you now my friend
They got problems of their own”
To top it all off, he’s not overly inaccessible; his playing will make you dance like nothing else exists and his choruses are catchy as well as meaningful.
Of course the backing band deserves at least a little mention as both Jason Mcgann (drums) and Gavin Shoesmith (bass) perform admirably on their chosen fortes. Mcgann especially is superb with his use of padded sticks as well as driving beats and inventive fills. His work on tracks like “Inspiration” so perfectly compliments John’s that it becomes strange when he disappears so John can go completely solo. Shoesmith’s groovy double bass may not appear as much, but when it’s there it’s at the same level as Mcgann’s drums, a perfect side to the main meal.
And there, that last line, that’s where the main issue lies. The only reason this hasn’t reached a full 5/5. The album is called John Butler
, the band is called The John Butler Trio, and to anyone looking at this without prior knowledge of the band, it would seem that there is only one man running the show. The other personnel may as well be session musicians for all the emphasis that’s put on them. Arrogance ultimately damages the overall integrity of the album. It’s probable that if the listener can’t handle the limelight being shone on Butler and no one else, then their love for the music will diminish greatly.
Nevertheless, I look at this album as the birth of a legend. John Butler
is a raw mix of talent, intelligence and beauty that gave a rising star the chance to put two feet in the door of the Australian music industry, only to be pushed the rest of the way in by the enormous popularity the follow up album, Three
, threw his way.