John Butler Trio
The John Butler Trio might be the perfect example of a successful, ambitious independent Australian artist. I know I talk about this a lot, the way so many independent artists fail to put their best foot forward, so it something of pleasure to make note of a band who have barely put a foot wrong. Interestingly, the topic of the band’s success features in the excellent cover story of the April edition of Rhythms magazine (not available online, unfortunately, but a very reasonable $8.50 at your local newsagent or bookshop). The article highlights not only their success in Australia but the way they have penetrated the US roots and festival market. It really is great to read such a happy story of local boy makes good.
In fact, so successful are the JBT, they make the job of a reviewer just about redundant. What’s the point of assessing an album when the thing is going to sell a motza from the moment it is released? Well, we all have our jobs to do, I guess.
So let’s begin by noting that this is one hot band. It’s a new line-up, but they seem to have found their feet very quickly and they play together like they’ve been at it a lot longer than they have. They are tight, firing on all cylinders, and all the while led by John Butler’s skillful and inventive guitar playing. I hadn’t realised before, I don’t think, how much I like what he does on guitar and related instruments, but his playing shines through here. Whether it’s a relatively simple figure like the one that opens ‘I’d Do Anything’, or the open-back banjo he plays on ‘Ragged Mile’, or the sound he gets on the 12-string on track 11, ‘To Look Like You’, or even the straight-ahead soloing on ‘Close To You’, this is a musician working at a very high standard.
For me, though, the key word is inventive. He is not a flashy player, not a show-off, especially given his centrality to the band. He doesn’t try and dominate with the sort of look-at-me licks he is no doubt capable of. Instead, his interventions are thoughtful and measured and under total control. I think the best way of putting it is to say that he lets the needs of the song dictate what he does on guitar, rather than let the guitar overpower the song for the sake of guitar-hero street cred. I admire that no end.
As a vocalist, he is less impressive. I’m probably in a minority of one here, but there is something a bit hollow about his singing. Maybe it’s the production, but the voice sounds flat to me and seems to be lacking in a solid middle register. There’s a kind of hollow, echoing quality to it that just doesn’t appeal. I can’t help but wonder what the band would sound like with a specialist singer up front.
I’ve listened to the album a lot, and I have to say that it has taken a long time to grow on me and I’m still not quite convinced it is the masterpiece that other reviewers have suggested. Like I said, whether I like it or not counts for nothing in the greater scheme of things but there it is: I can’t quite flip out about this one. The playing is superb, and there are some fantastic highlights — the aforementioned ‘Ragged Mile’ is my favourite; but ‘Mystery Man’ is also beautifully done, and the opening track, ‘Revolution’, is much better than Steve Earle’s similarly themed song, ‘The Revolution Starts…Now’ and is a great song in its own right — but the album doesn’t blow me away.
John Butler has worked long and hard for his success and I’m nothing but a fan of that sort of achievement, especially in today’s music marketplace. He is also fantastic live if you get the chance. This is a good album, but it didn’t have me jumping for joy.
The band website is here and you can preview the album.
And this is their MySpace page where you can also have a listen to some tracks.