It’s now been four years since the band’s previous release but Butler teased us with the first release from new record Home recently, describing it as “a little edgier, a little darker or modern than you maybe expected, but fresh and forward sounding”, so is the new record a return to the thrilling inventiveness of the early releases?
It was sophomore album Three that really cemented the reputation of John Butler Trio as one of the most inventive rock/roots outfits back in 2001. Featuring the epic ‘Betterman’, the album went platinum in their homeland and the range of influences and styles fused with John Butler’s impressive guitar work subsequently turned heads across the globe. 2004’s equally impressive Sunrise Over Sea added a social conscience to the mix but later records never seemed to consistently capture the unique effervescence of these early albums.
Opening track of Home ‘Tahitian Blue’ is a folky, crisp affair imbued with a positive vibe and this is enhanced by strong harmonies that underscore Butler’s vocals. The entirety of the record is a personal affair thematically, with the Australian claiming that battles with anxiety and the inner and outer worlds we all experience are driving the narrative. Well, the opener is a buoyant affair suggesting there are more intimate and personal stories to come. ‘Wade In The Water’ provides a swift shift in direction; a dirty, bluesy riff drives the organic swell of the song which Butler describes as a celebration of “my love for Led Zeppelin, Hip Hop backbeat, Indian classic music”. It’s the perfect mix for the open road that inspired it. The intro of ‘Just Call’ is certainly redolent of earlier JBT records; an animated, acoustic guitar is complimented by Butler’s sanguine vocals. Once again the vibe is cool and colourful but the vocals hint at something darker.
‘Running Away’ has a modern twist not often encountered on a JBT record. Subtle synths compliment the driving beats – add the recognizably JBT acoustic melody and more typical slide guitar along with Butler’s penchant for the epic and you have a song that swells majestically towards its conclusion. It’s classic John Butler Trio with the added subtle sonic shifts keeping it fresh. First single ‘Home’ maintains this deviation with its raucous synths providing the connotations of the strains of a touring life. The song’s a grower, with its implementation of aspects of hip-hop, electro and dub taking a few listens to be really appreciated. Take your time though because these approaches are forged to Butler’s characteristically robust vocals in an imaginative and stylish way. It’s interesting therefore that the next couple of tracks are a tad too generic to become really memorable. There’s a misplaced grandiosity to ‘Faith’ in particular and the sentiment of the album becomes a touch too saccharine.
Thankfully ‘Coffee, Methadone & Cigarettes’ addresses this mid-album dip. Blessed with a bluesy, roots timbre enhanced by Americana style vocals and a subtle slide guitar motif, there is a pleasing authenticity to the track and its progressive lyrics. This time the extended narrative of the song stands up to scrutiny making the track a highlight of the whole record.
The final third of the record is a mixed affair stylistically. ‘Tell Me Why’ is equally introspective as its predecessor but its painted on pretty thick this time. ‘Brown Eyed Bird’ is a more interesting affair, combining a traditional, folk approach with a more organic soundscape, melding synths and tribal chants with Butler’s uptempo guitar. It’s interesting how the fusion of styles works this time because it’s followed by ‘You Don’t Have To Be Angry Anymore’ which is an example of the combination of styles detracting from the personality of the track, making its impact so much less.
Thankfully we end on a high with the tribal, intricate and forceful ‘We Want More’. The song takes various influences and successfully melds them around the thematic approach Butler has taken on this record in thrilling style. If this was a record of experiments, its generally a successful one. A JBT record is always full of personality and the more evocative introspection of this record provides a depth that warrants multiple listens. Just occasionally, the experiment does fall a bit flat, which is a real shame.