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Grand National

John Butler Trio

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Album Review

It's been a few years now since John Butler and his trio first cracked the American market, but he's never had quite the same success in the U.S. as he has had in Australia, his father's homeland and his own residence for the past 20-odd years. Butler, however, should feel confident that he can hold his own against any of the Dave Matthewses, Ben Harpers, or John Mayers (all three of whom he can be easily compared to) out there. He's playing pop music, with all the sentimental, occasionally trite lyrics and clean major chord phrasing that accompany that style, but it's pop music done well, with impressive musicianship from Butler (on banjo, lapsteel, and acoustic and electric guitar), percussionist Michael Barker, and bassist Shannon Birchall. Nearly every song on Grand National features at least one instrumental solo, the kind that rolls and sings and grooves and would make Robert Randolph proud, moving close to jam band territory without immersing itself fully in it (only one song, "Gov Did Nothin'," reaches far past the four- or five-minute mark, much in part thanks to a great New Orleans-styled brass band that plays the piece out to a close, and is worth every second). His willingness to explore other genres besides bluesy folk pop — reggae in "Groovin' Slowly," hip-hop in "Daniella," and modern rock in "Devil Running" — certainly adds a nice diversity to the album, but unfortunately this talent is double-edged, as it also becomes the album's greatest flaw. Butler often tries to encompass too much, to do too much, and because of this, comes off sounding a little corny (in the aforementioned "Daniella," for example, which is more embarrassing than anything else), truncating words in a weird Dave Matthews-meets-Adam Sandler kind of way that's too forced and unnatural to sit well. And though it's nice to hear, in "Funky Tonight," for example, that he doesn't take himself too seriously, his simple rhymes and delivery are a bit too silly when they're about love and dancing. When he uses them in his socially and politically oriented pieces, however ("And with God on both sides/If death is justified/Whatever the name/Then we're all to blame," he sings on "Fire in the Sky"), they ring more truly, or at least more originally. But what Butler does best — writing and performing well-crafted pop songs, and sounding like he's having fun all the while — is good, and though Grand National still may not be his entry up the Billboard charts, it's a welcome entry nonetheless.

Biography

Born: 1975 in Torrance, CA

Genre: Alternative

Years Active: '90s, '00s, '10s

Though he spent the first 11 years of his life in California, it was in Australia — his father's native land — that guitarist John Butler picked up the instrument that would later launch his music career. After showing interest in the guitar, the 16-year-old Butler was given his late grandfather's dobro. He quickly began learning to play different styles of music, including Indian, Celtic, bluegrass, and folk. Butler showcased his budding skills by busking on the streets of Perth and...
Full bio
Grand National, John Butler Trio
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