The John Butler Trio debuted their eclectic fusion of blues, funk, bluegrass, R&B and reggae in their native country of Australia last year, showcasing their musical wingspan on Sunrise Over Sea. The band’s music is built around slide guitar, acoustic guitar and banjo. This album is invigorating, energetic and skillfully executed. Unfortunately, the poor quality of the lyrics and vocals drag down the album.
Butler’s jaunty, rhythmic delivery sounds at times like a first attempt at reading a textbook over music. His awkward phrasing and lack of smoothness sours tracks like “Old Man,” a look at a life’s worth of experiences, and “Bound to Ramble,” a love song discussing fate and destiny: “Walk for miles, circumnavigate these lands / Walking blindly, holding out my hands / And I pass the stones that remind me why I’m here / I follow the setting sun and you were there.” Both songs sound as though they were performed in one long breath.
Butler fares better when he stops the pseudo beat-poetry and stretches his vocal range on more melodic songs like “Peaches and Cream,” an ode to his baby daughter, and album standout “What You Want,” in which his vocal tenderness evokes Brandon Boyd of Incubus. Supporting Butler’s vocals is an epic instrumental backdrop, with rich and raw orchestral strings driven by relentless drum and bass.
“Damned to Hell” and “Mist” act as short interludes that break up Butler’s occasionally tiring and predictable vocal style, demonstrating his comfort playing different instruments. Played solely on banjo and sung with a muted voice, “Damned to Hell” has a haunting simplicity reminiscent of old-time country spirituals. “Mist,” a syncopated instrumental Celtic track, consists of a furiously finger-picked acoustic guitar and a forceful bass drum.
On a number of the album’s lengthy jam tracks, Butler pays homage to his humble beginnings as a street musician. During these lengthy instrumental breaks, the rest of the trio — currently Michael Barker and Shannon Birchall — display their musicianship, which, despite Butler’s occasional vocal flounderings, creates the band’s success.
While Butler’s vocal capacities fall behind his compositional and instrumental accomplishments on this record, The John Butler Trio commands recognition for their talent. Sunrise Over Sea successfully touches on an array of genres and musical styles.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars