Australia has produced no shortage of rock musicians over the decades, from those who epitomized classic hard rock (AC/DC) to modern alternative rock (The Vines). In 1998, The John Butler Trio began carving out its own place in the history of Aussie rock. Five albums and twelve years later, you can safely say they’ve succeeded.
Listen to any JBT album (Sunrise Over Sea immediately converted me to a follower), and you’ll be hard-pressed to deny the musical talent and technical prowess of lead vocalist and guitar virtuoso John Butler, bassist Shannon Birchall, and percussionist Michael Barker.
After exposing my ears to Grand National repeatedly, I have absolutely no reason to question their talent – most of the jam sessions are exceedingly impressive, and the complex rhythms keep it interesting throughout. However, I can’t help but be lukewarm about a handful of tracks, and these detract from the quality and continuity of the work as a whole.
But I’m an optimist, so let’s examine the high points first.
Lead single and album-kicker-offer “Better Than” represents why I love this band: VERY infectious chorus, subtle banjo-picking, acoustic double bass (which just isn’t used enough these days), and a little something extra on percussion with the glockenspiel. “Good Excuse” and “Used To Get High” are equally catchy. The latter points out the undeniable ubiquity of addiction in our society (“Super size, large fries, Big Mac, Coca-Cola / Go on, man, pick your poison / Speed, weed, ecstacy, LSD / Man, it don’t bother me ‘cause we’re all on somethin’”).
“Gov Did Nothin’” – the trio’s best effort on this album – is a scathing criticism of the U.S. government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, and it ponders the dire consequences of inaction when the next disaster inevitably hits. After the commentary ceases, you’re treated with the album’s most extended jam session, punctuated boisterously by N’awlens-style horns and clarinets.
“Devil Running” clearly emerges from the album’s second half. Yet another biting criticism of a few select politicians, it somehow legitimately opens with a didgeridoo –just in case you needed proof that, yes, these guys are Aussies. It then smolders through the opening verse before exploding into the chorus with distorted power chords, which had been restrained throughout the entire album until that moment.
Grand National seems to depend heavily on repetitive musical phrases and lyrics to hook the listener, usually successfully. Occasionally, however, it gets mildly annoying. “Groovin’ Slowly” is the best example of this, as the same phrase on ukulele repeats over and over. And over. To a lesser extent, “Losing You” and “Nowhere Man” use elements repeatedly, and it’s difficult to ignore; they become boring a little too quickly.
Also, the lyrics now and then lack creativity. For instance, in “Daniella,” they decided to fill a few seconds with Butler stuttering an “m”: “The same day I asked you be my wife to be / I said m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-marry me.” They seriously couldn’t think of anything better to fill that line? It gets under my skin every time.
To me, it’s obvious that most of the songs focusing on love as a central theme are far weaker. The lyrics lack the passion that is so salient in some of the other tracks with politically motivated motifs. Most of them seem forced and painfully unoriginal. And I’m not sure if it’s coincidence or not, but the music on these tracks generally seems thinner and less appealing.
It all adds up to a listening experience that boasts some stellar highlights, but inevitably you will find yourself hitting the “Next” button to get to that one good song about Katrina. Or that other track you heard on the radio once that you just can’t get out of your head.
Simply put, Grand National is hit and miss. Sort of like those Foster’s “Australian For beer” commercials.