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John Butler Trio - Sunrise Over Sea Print E-mail
Tuesday, 15 March 2005

John Butler Trio

Sunrise Over Sea
format: 16-bit Stereo CD
label: Lava Records
release year: 2005
performance: 9
sound 9.5
reviewed by: Charles Andrews

Image Let’s make this real clear, before the dissecting and comparing and nitpicking begins: John Butler is the most impressive, formidable and likable talent to come down the road in a long, long, long time.
Butler wrote and arranged everything on this album, and produced it all except one song, which has a bunch of strings and probably required a wrangler. He’s an outstanding songwriter, creating seductive and exciting melodies and dynamics, with lyrics so unrelentingly introspective and socially conscious that some may think it too much, but others will find it a refreshing antidote to the treacle and garbage rampant in pop music subject matter (I’m enthusiastically in the latter camp). In fact, I would say to all those good-hearted musicians dedicated to changing the world through their uplifting songs who have no idea they make us gag: take a page from Butler (and U2, John Lennon, Phil Ochs and a few others), frame things a little more obliquely and then wail. People can take a spoonful of sugar if it’s mixed into a tasty stew.

As important as lyrics may be, people ultimately listen to songs, especially over and over (they call these “hits”), because of how they sound, and that’s where Butler comes up aces. All aces. He’s a basically acoustic multi-instrumentalist whose main weapon is an amplified acoustic 11-string guitar, but don’t let that fool ya: this boy r-o-c-k-s the joint. Flat out kills ya. I cannot say that strongly enough. You only find this out on a handful of the songs here and not convincingly until Track 10, “There’ll Come a Time,” which is typical of his runaway locomotive style, and the three that follow. (You get a more balanced feel for his rockin’ side from his introductory EP of last year, What You Want -- more on that gem later.)

You can also discover this by hearing him live, which I did recently at the Temple Bar in Santa Monica, one of only 10 U.S. shows in an “introductory" tour. I expected (as apparently did the rest of the packed house) and got balls-to-the-wall rock 'n' roll. It was spirit-renewing to see a young crowd screaming and cheering for an acoustic rocker who can really, really play his instruments.

Butler is also a masterful arranger, and arrangements can make a good song great, or vice-versa. With only a trio and his own bag of instrumental prowess, he fills the space both live and recorded with an organic wall of sound. It doesn’t hurt that his players are nearly as talented as he Is, which may seem an offhand endorsement but I’ll tell you again, John Butler is a monster, and his trio makes more beautiful noise than really good eight-piece rock groups.

Here comes some nitpicking. If I hadn’t heard the EP first, my jaw would’ve been dropped open by Sunrise Over Sea, the just-released “official” John Butler Trio debut album for U.S. audiences. (Butler was born in SoCal but moved to his father’s native Australia at 11 and has gone from busking to multi-platinum status there in the last five years.) Only six songs but 32 minutes, it has more of a balance between his wilder and milder sides, fewer ornamentations than the new album, mixes his voice up top more, has a “country funk version” of “Treat Yo Mama” and a killer live 12-minute “Betterman” (both superior to the new album’s versions), an enchanting, essential cover of “Across the Universe,“ and mainly, it’s got “Something’s Gotta Give,” my new favorite song in the whole wide world. I would give that album (drum roll, clarion trumpets): two 10s. Oh yes, I would.

But please, please! Don’t let that detract from Sunrise Over Sea. Here’s what you do: go out and get it now, and after you’ve savored it a hundred times or so, and are still loving it, go look for What You Want. You’ll thank me for this crucial game plan. Oh yes, you will.

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