Sometimes in life you just have to keep plugging away to reap your just rewards. John Butler would know a thing or two about this.
After three warmly received home releases, Butler had become all but a household name in his native Australia in 2004 when Sunrise Over Sea debuted at the top of the album charts – this in spite of being independently released. But Butler, like far too many of his musically talented countrymen, was still largely unknown in Europe and north America at the time. Those of us in Australia scratched our heads and wondered why.
Now, having at last signed a US album deal and steadily built a fan base across the States and Canada with live performances, celebrity support and even an appearance on the Letterman show, the dredlocked Californian-Australian is ready for the Old World to appraise his considerable skills too.
Aficionados of Ben Harper, Xavier Rudd, Jack Johnson, Dave Matthews, Ash Grunwald and Red Hot Chili Peppers will all find plenty of interest with Butler’s rootsy, honest and homespun approach to music that gets down and grooves. The quintessentially Australian surfer dude album title, suggestive of woosy acoustica, belies the hands-in-the-air hip-hop beats and folk influences in store.
Aussie top 10 hit Zebra, a song that showcases Butler’s lyrical rhythm as on a par with fellow Californians the Chili Peppers’ best moments, is a beast of a track. Yet on this album it’s just one track, for it is in fine company. Company Sin shows Zebra’s no fluke, marrying a serious lyrical theme with eminently funky music. There’s more in this vein with Hello.
Instrumental tracks are notable too for the virtuosity of musicianship on display, taking in open guitar tunings, and their unbridled energy. Intricate guitar work on the folky Mist gives way to insistent bass and drums that could start a war, giving the piece the spirited intensity of Fairport Convention heading into battle.
Elsewhere, Butler demonstrates he knows how to do commercial singalongs too with obvious crowd pleaser Treat You Mama. (What with Scissor Sisters taking your mama out tonight and now JBT treating her with respect, she really should start to listen to these new bands, you know.)
But the most commercial moment on the record is What You Want, a bombastic, production-polished track augmented by emotive strings and something close to prog rock guitar layers. It presses all the right buttons marked “remember me” and “aren’t I catchy”. It’s still far from bad, for all that. Directly afterwards the short-but-oh-so-sweet Damned To Hell twinkles out a banjo and dusty vocals over a classic folk round by way of greed-slating, anti-capitalistic lyrical recompense. More banjo shows up on trekking soundtrack Bound To Ramble, an extraordinary track that ties bowed bass to Butler’s voice to create a sound akin to that of a digeridoo’s drone.
Sunrise Over Sea is also a recognisably Australian album in the keeping-it-real, kitchen-sink-and-all approach to music taken some decades previously by Midnight Oil – only it’s far more interesting and better realised than anything Peter Garrett’s outfit ever produced. There’ll Come A Time perfectly ties a furious environmental conscience to searing rhythms – and it’s great to have someone prepared to sing about these things.
All too soon it’s nearing its end. Album closer Sometimes lets attention drift a little before sparking up into a 10-minute improvisational epic with dramatic tremolo organ and Shannon Birchall’s jazzy bass underpinning the pensive lyrics. A rousing finale gets the dredlocks swinging once again.
Sunrise Over Sea is a confident declaration of intent and a marvel of what three people with intrinsic rhythm can do in a studio. Australia has more than its share of such talent, but right now, for dexterity, composition, range and integrity, John Butler sits head, dreds and shoulders above them.