Remember the commercials for Foster's Lager where, for example, an oversized oafish guy would headbutt a door down, and we'd be informed that he was an Australian locksmith? The idea was that in Australia everything is bigger, tougher, and a little bit left-of-center, so when you locked your keys inside, you needed someone with a thick skull to bash the door in, and when you wanted to drink alcohol, you guzzled your lager from a can the size of that very same thick skull. "Australian for beer."
Well, John Butler is like Australian for Dave Matthews. A little bit grittier and tougher, and with a little bit more to him than the jampop star... but just a little bit. The personality of Butler shines through his music with a nasty twang on the acoustic guitar, and like the Dave Matthews Band, his trio has a winning combination of aching, soulful vocals to win over the preteen girls, and pensive, moving instrumentation and near-jamming to win over the college-aged males gathered around the keg.
Their latest release Sunrise Over Sea is a Polaroid snapshot of a work in progress. It shows a band that will go as far as Butler can take them. There is actually very little about the music that is Australian, which is both refreshing and surprising. Butler and Co. sound more Southern than Sydney. While the music is contained to guitar, drums, and stand-up bass, Butler extends the notion of the acoustic trio by infusing twelve strings, resonator guitars, banjos, and a little bit of electricity into his music. There are plenty of moments of greatness scattered throughout the CD – a glorious, bluesy hook on "Treat Yo' Mama" that won't leave your mind for a full 24-hours after listening, several spots of heady resonator guitar on "Hello," the reggae-funk rhythms of the deep-throated bass on "Company Sin," the simple imagery of "Peaches & Cream," or the sudden shift of time and place in the disc-closing "Sometimes."
Unfortunately, despite these moments and more, it doesn't add up to something whole. Individual moments give way to lackluster songs making it difficult to make it happily from beginning to end. Take "Sometimes," which at almost 11 minutes is a wannabe epic, an ultimate song to end the record, but instead it drags on, like a CD reviewer taking 400 words to get to his point when he could have used a sentence or two. Someday John Butler may find a voice and some songs to match his talents and his enthusiasm, and then we will look back at Sunrise Over Sea as a step on the ladder toward greatness. Until then, well, it has its moments.
JamBase | New York
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